Swarthmore athlete wins Rhodes scholarship

By Frank Fitzpatrick
Philadelphia Inquirer

Last week, Caitlin Mullarkey, Swarthmore College's first four-time all-Centennial Conference soccer player, captained her team to a second straight Eastern College Athletic Conference South title. On Monday, Mullarkey, a biology major who holds the school record in the women's steeplechase, started her senior season in track.

In between, she became a Rhodes Scholar.

"After I won, at track practice on Monday, my coach [Pete Carroll] said there's no need for me to go to class anymore. I can just focus on running now," Mullarkey said yesterday.

It's not likely that the 21-year-old senior from Wilmington is going to skip any classes.

Named one of 32 recipients of the prestigious award for scholar-athletes last weekend, she plans to use the $50,000-a-year scholarship to study microbiology for two or three years at Oxford University in England.

She spent the last two summers - one at Swarthmore, one at Georgetown - on a Howard Hughes Medical Institute fellowship. Her focus has been a protein that has been linked to both glaucoma and a particularly virulent strain of brain cancer.

"We call it the NMB protein, and we really don't know much about it," she said. "I've been working on trying to determine its trafficking pathways."

As daunting as that research might sound, it's a lot less stressful than the process of earning a Rhodes scholarship.

Mullarkey, an Ursuline Academy graduate, said she had known about the Rhodes program since high school but had not given it any thought until an adviser at Swarthmore urged her to apply.

She was one of 769 applicants, a pool that was honed down to a group of 100-plus finalists. On Saturday at Haverford College, she and the other applicants from this district, one of 16 across the United States, underwent extensive interviews by ex-Rhodes Scholars and a program official.

Though she had been prepping for that session for weeks, Mullarkey remained convinced she would do poorly.

"I'd been researching the interviews on the Web, and I'd heard all sorts of horror stories," she said. "I was expecting to get some impossible question like, 'How would you end religious violence in the Middle East?' "

The questions were nearly as challenging, and Mullarkey's pessimism deepened. Then a committee member informed her that she was a winner.

"I was so tense," she said. "He finally said, 'It's OK for you to smile now.' "

Mullarkey drove home to Wilmington and playfully tried to convince her anxious parents - her mother is a first-grade teacher, her father a wine importer-exporter - that she'd been rejected.

"I tried to look disappointed," she said, "but my mom knows me too well. She knew that if I hadn't won, I wouldn't have driven all the way home to tell them that."

She will graduate this spring, take some time off, and head to Oxford in advance of the October start of classes.

"I'm really excited. I've only been out of the country once, and that was a trip to Ireland," said the red-headed, befreckled Mullarkey. "It should be a wonderful experience."

The Rhodes scholarships were created 106 years ago through the will of the British philanthropist and African colonialist Cecil Rhodes.

Previous winners from this area include Villanova University runners Nnenna Lynch ('93) and Rebecca Spies ('94).

Among the more prominent athletes to have received the scholarships were Princeton University basketball legend Bill Bradley ('65), University of Maryland basketball all-American Tom McMillen ('74), and the Heisman Trophy-winning halfback Pete Dawkins ('59) of the U.S. Military Academy.

After earning a master's of science at Oxford, Mullarkey plans to apply to medical school and pursue a combination M.D.-Ph.D degree. Then she hopes to find a job in medical research.

While in England, she's eager to continue with sports. In addition to soccer and track, Mullarkey also lettered in basketball at Swarthmore.

"But I'm not sure what I'm going to do yet," she said. "Besides study, I mean."