Matt Levit is cautious. The 20-year-old doesn't drive, and he's never been on a plane. But Sunday, he will fly to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute on the West Coast to study astrobiology.
He'll have to wake up around 5 a.m. to catch an early flight, not to mention pass through security and switch planes in Las Vegas en route to SETI in Mountain View, Calif.
"My biggest fear, I guess, is, 'Am I going to get lost? Am I going to know where I'm going? Am I going to get to the right terminal?' " he said.
The rising junior at La Salle University can't just stay up all night to make sure he doesn't sleep through his first flight. He is epileptic, so he has to be careful with his diet and sleep schedule. His mother, Mary, said that he had his first seizure in first grade.
"He was in critical condition, on life support," she said. "He was breathing on a ventilator."
As if that wasn't enough, his mother said he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy around age 4.
He needed speech therapy, she said, and he had to learn how to hold a pencil. She said it was hard for him because the cerebral palsy affected his motor skills.
"He had to work double for everything that he needed to obtain in his younger years, and I think it has given him his work ethic now that he's older."
Now, the efforts of the Bustleton resident have landed him one of 10 spots in the student-research program at SETI this summer.
Cynthia Phillips, principal investigator at the institute, said that about 115 students applied to the program. She said that students come out to get hands-on experience with scientists.
"It's a win-win situation," she said. "The scientists get great assistance with their research, and students get a great experience out of it."
On the surface, Levit is just one of about 3,400 undergraduates at La Salle, but the biology major has what biochemistry professor Michael Prushan says is a true passion for science. With the help of Prushan, Levit has studied an enzyme called Cytochrome C, which Prushan said is the powerhouse of the cell. Prushan said that Levit puts his heart into his work.
"He's very methodical," Prushan said. "He's able to analyze things first and then bring me the results, so he's very thorough."
At SETI, Levit will be studying something a little farther from home.
Levit said that SETI looks for extraterrestrial life on other planets, trying to identify things like proteins and water. He said that scientists also look for radio signals from outer space.
"To me, one's more reality than the other, obviously, but they do both," he said.
As the only biology major in his group, Levit said that he is just hoping to have a good time at his 10-week internship, while learning about science along the way. *