WSU Tri-Cities' only student-athlete balances time in the lab, on the mat

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldApril 20, 2014 

RICHLAND -- Professors and coaches don't know how Joseph Traverso does it all.

The Washington State University Tri-Cities sophomore is a man for all seasons, balancing ambitious studies in mechanical engineering with competitive success as a wrestler and diverse research interests.

His research into how radiation affects DNA won a Boeing Crimson Award in late March at WSU's Showcase for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities.

"I knew from the beginning he was an outstanding student," said Kate McAteer, WSU Tri-Cities' undergraduate education coordinator and Traverso's biochemistry professor.

On the mat, Traverso is a collegiate regional champion this year and recently competed at nationals.

He is also WSU Tri-Cities' only student-athlete, working with the wrestling club based on the Pullman campus.

"When Joe showed up (for training), it was with no grudging face," said Chris Gambino, an assistant coach with the wrestling club. "He'd always be giddy and smiling."

The frenetic pace is just how Traverso works, he said.

Work forges new ground

Traverso moved to the Tri-Cities when he was 14, graduating from Hanford High School in 2012. He looked at schools on the East Coast as well as Case Western Reserve University in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, where he was invited to join the wrestling team.

But a knee injury his senior year and his contentment with life in the Tri-Cities kept him here, he said.

He aspires to a career in human prosthetic design. He chose mechanical engineering for his undergraduate studies after being told it would best prepare him for his future doctorate in biomechanics, he said.

"I want to invent what I'm thinking about," he said.

But Traverso dedicates plenty of time to other science-related pursuits. A brief fling as a chemical engineering major earned him a lab job at WSU Tri-Cities' Bioproducts, Sciences & Engineering Laboratory, or BSEL. He now starts there each day at 7 a.m. and is working on a biomass project with a post-doctoral student.

Traverso began working with assistant math professor Nikolaos Voulgarakis during an internship this past summer. Voulgarakis said Traverso approached him about a project where he'd used a mathematical model to look at the flexibility of DNA, specifically when exposed to radiation.

While others have done research in this area, Voulgarakis said Traverso's work forged new ground, as "from the theoretical point of view no one really knows what's going on."

The math professor praised his protege for approaching the project with care and intuition, balanced with the ability to work without a lot of supervision.

"You expect this only from graduate students," Voulgarakis said.

Traverso even obtained funding for his research with a $1,000 Auvil scholarship from the Office of Undergraduate Education, allowing him to present his findings at the recent showcase along with three other students from the Richland campus. He took top honors in the Computer Science, Mathematics, Statistics and Information Sciences category.

"It shows his awareness of how interdisciplinary science has become," McAteer said.

Balancing lab and mat

Traverso did spend the fall 2013 semester on the Pullman campus, eventually returning to the Tri-Cities because of his work with Voulgarakis.

While in Pullman he joined the wrestling club, having had surgery to repair his injured knee. He became one of the 15 core wrestlers with the club, which has been actively competing for two years.

Traverso's return to the Richland campus means he doesn't practice with the team, and instead works with a local coach. He sometimes spars with younger, bigger students at his old high school.

"They're stronger than me, but I'm faster," Traverso said, smiling.

He drove to Pullman every couple of weeks for meets, or his coaches and teammates would pick him up on their way to competitions.

It made sense for Traverso to return to the Tri-Cities, Gambino said, because that was best for his education and career. But the sophomore's role within the club is valued, because he is an equally disciplined athlete and student who was willing to help anyone in anyway he could.

"Joe always wants to work his hardest," Gambino said.

Traverso never thought he'd get to compete at the collegiate level following his injury.

Just as with science, wrestling is just something that he has to do to be himself, he said.

An official at nationals he spoke with summed it up well -- "it's not like wrestling needs you, you need wrestling."

Taking advantage of opportunities

As a sophomore, Traverso has time to get a lot more done before he graduates from WSU Tri-Cities.

His work in BSEL and with Voulgarakis is ongoing and his interests could lead him in any number of directions, faculty members sayd.

Traverso is grateful for the support he's received from his professors, coaches, teammates, scholarship sponsors and other students.

"I hope I can make an impact and that other students can pick up on my lead," he said, adding that there's so much opportunity for research at the Richland campus that Pullman students come here in the summers for internships.

Traverso's accomplishments show not just the importance of undergraduate research and involvement, but the potential of what's available in the Tri-Cities, McAteer said.

"I wish more students would avail themselves of these opportunities," she said.

For his part, Traverso likes the idea of being a role model.

"I just hope some of them go, 'Well, I can do that," Traverso said.

Tri-City Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service