URBANA — Described as a candidate with "outstanding" personal and professional qualities, James Holmes was accepted into the University of Illinois Neuroscience Program in 2011 and was offered financial support through a combination of fellowships, teaching and research assistantships, and tuition and fee waivers, The News-Gazette has learned.
However, a few weeks after his visit to the Urbana campus in the spring of 2011 and one day after he was offered admission to the highly selective graduate program, Holmes declined to accept, without elaborating on the reasons or his plans for the future, according to university documents provided to The News-Gazette under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
The UI documents, which included email correspondence, travel arrangements, Holmes' application and more, depict Holmes as an aspiring cognitive neuroscientist. The man accused of killing 12 people at a suburban Denver movie theater in July wanted to work in academia or the public sector in the areas of learning and memory, according to his application for the UI neuroscience Ph.D. program submitted for fall 2011.
"Researching learning and memory interests me because these are the very cognitive processes which enable us to acquire information and retain it. They are at the core of what distinguishes us as people," Holmes wrote in his personal statement. "Due to the seemingly infinite vastness of indefinite knowledge we must be selective in our pursuits of knowledge. That is why I have chosen to study the primary source of all things, our own minds," he wrote.
A graduate of the University of California Riverside, Holmes would instead enroll as a doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of Colorado, working in research facilities at the university's medical campus near Denver, according to news reports. Holmes, 24, was in the first year of a program at the Anschutz Medical Campus, which is dedicated to neuroscience, and was studying how the brain works, the AP has reported. He joined the program in June 2011 after receiving a National Institutes of Health grant that covered his tuition and provided a $26,000 annual living allowance.
Holmes filed paperwork in June to drop out, according to news reports.
Police say Holmes, wearing tactical body armor and a gas mask and toting three firearms, opened fire on a crowded midnight screening of "The Dark Knight Rises" in Aurora, Colo., killing 12 people and wounding 58 others.
Sam Beshers, the coordinator for the UI Neuroscience Program, declined to comment about Holmes. UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler has said it is the university's practice not to comment on applications or applicants. Professor Lee Beverly, chair of the neuroscience admissions committee, did not return a call seeking comment.
Although faculty members' specific opinions about Holmes were redacted by the UI, the UI documents do show Holmes was considered a "very strong candidate" for the neuroscience graduate program.
As a high school student, Holmes was an intern at the Salk Institute of Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif. At UC-Riverside, he worked in the Department of Chemistry's laboratory analyzing mass spectrometry, chromatography and ultraviolet spectrometry. As a laboratory assistant in the Flight Lab in UC-Riverside's Department of Cellular Biology and Neuroscience, he dissected, stained and photographed the flight muscles of birds like hummingbirds, according to the resume he submitted to the UI.
Holmes' GRE quantitative score was 800 (94th percentile), his verbal score was 710 (98th percentile), and he had an analytical writing score of 4 (45th percentile), according to his UI application. His GPA was 3.94 out of 4.00, according to the application.
Holmes also submitted three letters of reference; the UI redacted the names of those who recommended him for the program.
References describe Holmes as an intelligent and driven student, "among the top 1 percent of honors students."
Another called Holmes a motivated student "with a logical thought process and the ability to integrate knowledge with advanced concepts and techniques. My communication with James indicates a quiet, hard-working and professional individual," wrote one.
In his personal statement submitted to the UI, Holmes said, "Rational people act based on incentives for self-fulfillment, including fulfilling needs of self-development and needs of feeling useful and helpful to others. I look forward to fulfilling my quest to advance my knowledge and I plan to use my critical thinking skills by studying the subject I am passionate about, neuroscience."
Holmes visited the Urbana campus in March 2011 after he was unable to attend a February 2011 neuroscience open house. According to the UI documents, he met with several researchers while here. While arranging his itinerary, faculty and staff referred to him as "llama," in reference to a photo he submitted that showed him posing, grinning and wearing sunglasses, next to a llama.
In the UI's offer letter to Holmes, admissions chair Beverly told Holmes that those who met him "felt that your personal and professional qualities are truly outstanding and that you will be an excellent match for our program."
Holmes was offered a financial stipend of $22,660 per year. Financial support would come through a combination of fellowship, NIH traineeship, teaching and research assistantships, plus tuition and fee waivers.
The UI's Neuroscience Program is an interdisciplinary research unit with an academic program leading to a doctoral degree. It has 70 students and more than 85 affiliated faculty from departments across campus studying the brain from a broad range of perspectives, according to its website.
Their research involves nutrition and memory, neuroengineering, aging, cell signaling and communication, neuroimmunology, and sensory and motor systems, among other areas. The program also hosts an annual Brain Awareness Day to teach younger students about the brain.
The program receives about 120 to 150 applicants annually and takes in between six and 15 students each year.
The university offered admission to Holmes on March 21, 2011. The next day Holmes declined the offer. He did not indicate his reasons or plans.
"My apologies for any inconvenience this may have caused. Best wishes in your candidate search," he wrote to Beshers, program coordinator.