Calvin Runnels has spent the past few years pondering big scientific questions about the origins of life on Earth, an academic quest recently capped by winning a prestigious Rhodes scholarship to further his education at Oxford University.
A 2015 graduate of Baton Rouge Magnet High School, Runnels will graduate early from Georgia Tech this spring and then move to England alongside dozens of other scholars chosen from around the world for postgraduate study at Oxford. He was named one of 32 Americans picked for the scholarship — selected out of 866 applicants from 299 U.S. colleges and universities. He was also the second openly transgender person from the United States ever awarded a spot within the program, which started in 1904.
The scholarships are worth about $68,000 per year and usually cover two or three years, according to the Rhodes Trust.
The summer before his freshman year, Runnels struck up a serendipitous conversation with a biochemistry professor during a hiking trip for Georgia Tech scholarship recipients. He had yet to choose a major, but that discussion piqued his interest. Soon he “just sort of fell into biochemistry” and started working alongside the professor in his lab — researching the most fundamental biological molecules and trying to figure out how they formed.
Runnels, 20, now plans to become a science professor himself someday.
Though he may earn his Ph.D. in biochemistry at Oxford, Runnels said he is also considering pursuing a second undergraduate degree in another field such as language, philosophy or politics, using the opportunity to broaden his education and explore something new.
“I mean at this point, I could do anything,” he said, smiling with enthusiasm and shrugging at the same time.
Runnels said he has always had diverse interests, both academic and otherwise, which he hopes will ultimately shape his career. He considered pursuing film, writing and engineering, among other possibilities, before science came along.
Growing up in Baton Rouge, Runnels attended the Runnels School — a private school founded by his grandparents with their own children in mind — before transferring to Baton Rouge Magnet High School starting in the 10th grade.
There he was named Student of the Year as a senior, won a National Merit Scholarship, and received perfect scores on the PSAT, SAT and ACT.
Runnels said attending Baton Rouge High gave him a new appreciation for the city where he grew up and caused him to “understand why diversity is important.”
Earlier this year he started receiving hormone therapy and changed his name to Calvin, coming out as a transgender man over the summer. Runnels said transitioning from female to male has allowed him to overcome mental health issues that previously had seemed daunting and pervasive.
“I spent my first two years at Georgia Tech kind of agonizing over (the decision) and then … started hormone therapy,” he said. “I didn’t realize just how great that would be for me because I was not doing so well emotionally for a long time, and then everything just kind of cleared up.”
Despite the challenges associated with transitioning, Runnels said that staying focused on academics was always a priority. He maintained a 4.0 GPA, worked as an algebra teaching assistant at the university and conducted research under the guidance of Loren Williams, the professor he met hiking before freshman year.
Williams has focused his research primarily on the ribosome, a component of the biological cell involved in the production of protein. He said the findings of a paper recently completed by him and other scientists in his lab — Runnels is the lead author — could challenge a more widely accepted scientific theory about the origin of life, which holds that ribonucleic acid (RNA) first existed alone in a world without protein. Their research suggests instead that protein and RNA evolved simultaneously with each guiding the evolution of the other.
Williams said Runnels' work displays a level of sophistication far beyond that of most undergraduates and even grad students, grappling with fundamental questions underlying the entire field of biology.
"That takes a lot of confidence and courage because you're not just reading textbooks and memorizing information, you're starting at the beginning and really rethinking things," Williams said. "Calvin is a very deep thinker and cerebral person, and he just has sort of a calm maturity. … He takes his time and thinks about things in a way that seems beyond his years."
Williams said his approach to science resonated with Runnels from the beginning. "In my lab, we try to answer questions that some people consider unanswerable," Williams said. "That fit with Calvin’s abilities and his interests and he seemed to really embrace that."
Runnels said he plans to approach science within a broader context that leaves room for ethical questions.
“A lot of the advances being made right now have really important ethical implications and the people on the front end who are developing the technology don’t really care about that,” he said. “They’re always asking what can we do, and not whether we should do this … (instead) of thinking about who we could be hurting and what are the wider reaching implications.”
Thinking about those issues could help bridge the gap between science and policy, which often leaves new technologies unregulated, Runnels said. “I think the solutions to a lot of big questions and big problems are in those gaps — in the places where there’s no one who can communicate between these two fields. And I’m hoping that will be something I can contribute because I do have this wider range of interests and abilities.”
In addition to being a scientist, Runnels said he wants to advocate for diversity within the field, helping marginalized groups gain a place at the table.
During his time at Georgia Tech, Runnels has gotten involved with student government and recently organized a rally for immigrant rights in response to the Trump administration’s proposed travel ban. Runnels also was selected to help lead a committee addressing concerns on campus for LGBTQ students — including from a mental health standpoint — following the fatal police shooting of Scout Schultz, president of the Georgia Tech Pride Alliance, earlier this year.
Runnels’ older sister, Sierra Runnels, also applied for the Rhodes scholarship program and also was named a finalist, but ultimately wasn’t selected as one of the recipients. She graduated from Baton Rouge High in 2014 and will graduate from the University of Georgia this year with a master’s in public health and plans to work in global health security. She was also Student of the Year in high school and won a National Merit Scholarship.
Their two other siblings also have long lists of academic achievements.
Jessica Runnels, their mother, said she is most proud of her children not for those achievements but “for the human beings that they are” — their “compassion and insight and desire to repair the world.”