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‘GED to Ph.D.’: Community mourns death of graduate student

“She got a license plate that said ‘GED to Ph.D.,’” Jon Tyler said of his late wife Bella. “[The phrase] would remind her to get that Ph.D., and that it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”

Gabriella (Bella) Tyler, a graduate student in David Hyde’s lab, died on Sept. 4, 2022. Bella, 33, was in her third year of a Ph.D. program in the department of biological sciences at the University of Notre Dame. 

Untraditional and unstoppable

Bella was an untraditional student in every sense of the word, Jon said. He explained that Bella was homeless at 15 and went through the foster care system. He said she worked hard for everything she achieved. 

“Nothing was handed to her, nothing. She fought, scrapped, and clawed. She tried to excel in everything she put her mind to,” Jon said. “She tried to light up every room she was in because she knew how it was when someone didn’t pay attention to her or underestimated her.”

After getting her GED in 2012, Bella pursued an undergraduate degree at Georgia Gwinnett College where she lived in Lawrenceville, Georgia, with her husband. 

Jon explained that Bella knew she would pursue a career in the sciences after going to just one biology class at Gwinnett. 

“She came back home [after class] and told me ‘I found out what I want to do.’ And I said, ‘What are you talking about? Nobody finds out what they want to do this young,” he said. “She said ‘I haven’t decided what I wanted to do yet, but I know it is going to be science.’”

Bella and Jon had a successful marriage of more than eight years after meeting through an online dating platform, Jon said. 

“Believe it or not, the first 30 days didn’t go so well. She ghosted me,” Jon said jokingly. “I still kept on pursuing her and trying to get to know her, and after about six months of talking, we ended up going on our first date.”

A step in the right direction

Jon described the moment Bella got into Notre Dame’s graduate program as surreal and explained that she applied on a whim because of an application waiver she had received. 

“She was a little hesitant on putting in her application because, you know, Notre Dame is a prestigious school, but she did it,” he said. “She was floored that the University of Notre Dame would consider her.”

Jon said he had never doubted what his wife was capable of. 

“I was so happy for her, and I’ve always believed that she could do it,” he said. “No doubt in my mind that she could reach this, and she did.”

At Notre Dame, Bella was a brilliant student and researcher, David Hyde said. Hyde, a professor of biological sciences, runs the lab where Bella was working on her Ph.D. project. 

Hyde said Bella’s project was aiming to look at the degenerative nature of Parkinson’s disease. Her project specifically looked at dopaminergic neurons — cells designed to respond to and send dopamine in the brain —  in a zebrafish model of the disease. 

“[She] developed this project on her own to look at Parkinson’s disease and look at the regeneration of a specific type of neuron, dopaminergic neurons,” he explained. “She loved the project because it had a clear application to human disease.”

Hyde said he loved working with Bella because of her mature mindset, perseverance in the lab and clear goals. 

“Bella was loved by everybody in the lab,” he said. 

Hyde said he mourns the loss of such a talented scientist and mentor, especially for the students who didn’t know her yet. He explained that Bella wanted to use her Ph.D. to teach other nontraditional students and to show that everyone belongs in science. 

“She [wanted to] go to a school where she could impact nontraditional students,” he said. “All those students are now going to have this void that they don’t know that it’s a void, but they would have had an opportunity to be inspired by somebody who’s really talented and very passionate.”

Big (and little) changes

Bella and Jon recently welcomed a new addition to their lives: a daughter Matilda Tyler. Jon said Matilda, now five months old, was the missing piece in Bella’s life. 

From left to right, Bella Tyler, her husband Jon and daughter Matilda Tyler.
From left to right, Bella Tyler, her husband Jon and daughter Matilda Tyler. Courtesy of Jon Tyler.

“She always wanted to be a mother,” he said. “We always talked about how she wanted her babies to grow up and love science just as much as she did. She couldn’t wait to take our little baby to school.”

Hyde said he noticed a change in Bella’s demeanor when she became a mother. 

“Being a parent just changes 99% of the people in a very positive way. I mean, their whole demeanor on life improves,” he explained. “There’s a lot of responsibility going on, and she just embraced all of it in a positive way.”

Jon said he hoped his daughter will know her mother’s kindness. 

“She did [everything] with kindness. She never treated anybody different,” he said. “Even when other people seem ugly, she always saw the best in everybody.”

Another recent event in Bella’s life was her award from the Pat Tillman Foundation, a scholarship fund for veterans and spouses of veterans who have displayed impactful leadership ability in their fields. Bella was a part of the 2022 class of scholars, which was announced in June 2022. 

As part of her award, Bella and her family, including new daughter Matilda, traveled to Chicago in July to take part in a national leadership conference. Pat Tillman CEO, Dan Futrell, was part of the team that welcomed her into the program. 

Futrell said he and Bella bonded over their shared backgrounds at the conference, and he got to know her generous nature. 

“In July, she and I connected over a brief conversation about foster care as part of our lives and how we can grow from that and continue to serve others who are still in that system and try to also provide a positive example,” Futrell said. 

Futrell expressed his deepest sympathies for the loss of Bella and said he hoped to honor her in small part by inspiring her daughter’s future in education. 

In her honor

In Bella’s memory, Jon said he hopes people will learn her story and take inspiration from it. 

“What she would want in her honor is for me to continue to touch people the way she did. Life is too short to be negative and mean,” he said. “We always had the philosophy, treat the janitor the same way you treat the principal.”

When asked what he will remember most about Bella, Jon laughed. 

“Her spirit,” he said. “You could never, ever catch her on a bad time, especially with her mind. She was so smart, beautiful and was passionate about everything.”

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Futrell’s future wishes. The Observer regrets this error.

Contact Bella Laufenberg at ilaufenb@nd.edu.