That’s all it took to convince Melissa Adams, the 2003- 2004 Goldwater Scholarship winner and a Thomas Jefferson Scholar in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, that she wanted to pursue a career in environmental toxicology.
Last summer, as part of a National Science Foundation Research Undergraduate Experience, she studied crustacean physiology at the University of Alaska in Juneau. “This was the turning point for me in deciding to go for the Ph.D. in toxicology,” said Adams. “I like investigating questions about snow crabs. I worked in the lab and the field, scuba diving and collecting samples.
“ I’ve enjoyed what I’ve done so far and getting absorbed in my projects, but last summer was just a taste,” she says. “I plan to return and resume my research there in summer 2004.”
Till then, she has plenty to occupy her time.
In May, Adams received her N.C. State bachelor’s degree in zoology, with a minor in genetics. She graduated as a valedictorian and as a member of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Honor Program, the University Scholars Program and Phi Beta Kappa. This fall, Adams plans to stick around another year and use the Goldwater Scholarship as she completes requirements for her degree in her second major, multidisciplinary studies, with a minor in toxicology. Before that, she’ll spend summer 2003 in endocrinology research at the Environmental Protection Agency, Research Triangle Park.
Ultimately, she hopes to pursue her graduate studies on the West Coast, where she’s looking into the University of California at Berkeley as a possible destination.
Adams was one of two N.C. State students to win this year’s Goldwater award, which goes to students in the fields of mathematics, science and engineering and covers the costs of tuition, fees, books and room and board up to a maximum of $7,500 per year.
And she credits her Jefferson program experience with helping her to win the Goldwater. “The Goldwater Scholarship is for people who have potential to go into sciences,” she explains, “but, as a Jefferson Scholar, I’ve taken science writing and science ethics courses, which helped me to articulate my goals in the Goldwater application essay. Being a Jefferson Scholar also enhanced my confidence to step up to the challenge.”
Jefferson Scholars enroll in a double-degree program in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHASS) and engage in a special curriculum that has three main components: 1) specially designed honors classes, including History of the Life Sciences, taught by Dr. Will Kimler, the Middle Ages, taught by Dr. John Riddle, and Biological Bases for Human Social Behavior, taught by Dr. Mary Walek; 2) choice of two majors, one in CALS and one in CHASS, from the full range of major offerings of those colleges; and 3) a senior seminar culminating in a symposium presentation tying together the two majors. In addition to special classes and the double major, the program fosters close contact between students and faculty, opportunities for meeting scientists, scholars and government officials, and participation in extracurricular activities.
“ The Jefferson program has been rewarding academically and socially,” says Adams, who applied for the program as a high school senior, after she was accepted by CALS at N.C. State. “We’re a small group in a large university, all good friends.”
Looking forward to her Jefferson senior seminar this fall, Adams says, “My project may be about how the media portray information about environmental toxins to the public, whether the public is provided complete and accurate information about controversial topics, such as frogs and fish with developmental deformities.”
That project will be a culmination of a range of experience in both her CALS and humanities curricula.
Among her most memorable courses, she says, are science writing, which included writing grant proposals for research, and Dr. Clay Stalnaker’s biomedical ethics course, part of her multidisciplinary studies curriculum. “Learning so much about biomedical dilemmas, such as euthanasia, challenges you and makes you think and determine where you stand,” says Adams.
She also notes her 2001 expedition to Australia, when her zoology class went with Dr. Harold Heatwole to the Great Barrier Reef Research Station to study sea turtle physiology and to learn about indigenous plant and animal species. Equally memorable, she says, was the CALS Honors Program seminar she took with Dr. Robert Grossfeld, studying serotonin levels in lobsters as models for the genomics of behavior.
“ I’ve always been driven to keep doing well grade-wise, and I’ve always been inquisitive and loved science,” says Adams. “When I was little in North Wilkesboro, we had a creek behind our house, and I loved to go outside and see what was out there.”
It’s a feeling that has persisted. “I’ve loved college and being able to take all these courses,” she says.
Her recollections of her job as an undergraduate teaching assistant in Biochemistry 451 classes are particularly telling.
I’d help students in problem sessions, and I’d see so many kids who
just wanted to pass and get out! But to me there’s so much in biochemistry
to get excited about,” Adams says. “I remember when I took that course
myself, and when I finished, I thought, ‘Wow! I’ve
learned so much!’