A vanguard

Date posted: August 4, 2012

collageTop row: Rachel Turner, Emily Meineke and Justin Hills; bottom row: David Higgins, Alex Johnson and Brett Williams.

Six CALS students – beneficiaries of the land-grant university education — make their mark in academics, arts, research and more.

The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences student body of today is much more diverse than in the past, and so are the opportunities available for them to engage in research, travel domestically and internationally and to pursue other interests — academic and otherwise. The College’s online Student Perspectives series highlights this diversity, as some of the College’s outstanding students tell the stories behind their achievements and their hopes for the future. Here are some of tomorrow’s transformational leaders:

Rachel Turner
Future vet conducts colic research and travels afar for animal care internships

Rachel Turner and Dr. Matthew Gerard

Becky Kirkland photo

Rachel Turner and Dr. Matthew Gerard conducted an equine colic study that was presented at an international symposium in 2011.

For as long as she can remember, Rachel Turner has wanted to be a veterinarian. And when she takes a step closer to that dream as a doctorate of veterinary medicine (DVM) student in N.C. State University this fall, the May 2012 CALS graduate will bring along experience as a researcher and an international animal health intern and volunteer.

As an animal science major, Turner traveled to Costa Rica to help with a spay-and-neuter clinic and to Sri Lanka, where she was an intern with the Millennium Elephant Foundation. The elephant organization provides housing and medical care for injured elephants, and it provides elephant education programs to tourists. “It gives them an idea of what conscientious interaction with elephants is like,” she says.

Turner, a native of San Jose, Calif., also got to try her hand at research while she was a CALS undergraduate. Working with Dr. Matthew Gerard, a clinical associate professor large animal surgery with N.C. State’s College of Veterinary Medicine, Turner conducted an equine colic study that Gerard presented at an international symposium last fall. Equine colic is the leading cause of premature death in horses, and Turner analyzed data on colic surgeries to determine the risk factors that led to post-surgical infections.

Turner says she got involved in research because research is particularly important to conservation medicine, which she hopes to specialize in.

“There’s just so much that we don’t know about wildlife,” she says. “And there’s so much we don’t know about how they reproduce and how they behave and what they eat and what their habitat is like and things like that. And all that information really, really impacts how we are able to keep them in captivity and how comfortable we are able to make them, and then how we are able to bring back their species and rehabilitate them and reintroduce them into the wild.”

Emily Meineke
Ph.D. student scales up reseach on tiny pest

Emily Meineke

Becky Kirkland photo

Emily Meineke is studying scale insects, an important plant pest.

The research that entomology Ph.D. student Emily Meineke is conducting on scale insects has important implications for understanding the potential impacts of climate change. Meineke is looking at why scale insects are so much more abundant in cities than in towns, with the idea that the heat generated in cities might be advantageous to the insects.

“The hypothesis is, ‘The reason that scale are so abundant in urban areas is that it is hotter in urban areas due to the heat-island effect — and the scale benefit from that heat,’” Meineke says. “The urban heat-island effect is a phenomenon where urban areas are between … 1 and 11 degrees Celsius warmer than rural areas because of development and impervious surfaces like sidewalks and roads and also vegetation removal.”

She notes that if insects benefit from urban heat, they may be able to benefit from heat that results from climate change, “which means,” she says, “over a longer timescale, as climate change progresses, we may see the abundance of scale go up — and scale can kill plants.”

Meineke grew up in Winterville, in eastern North Carolina, and holds a bachelor’s degree from UNC-CH. She’s traveled extensively throughout Southeast Asia and the Unites States. She hopes to become a university professor, and she’s also interested in K-12 insect education and in learning how to reach out to teenagers and young adults about the discovery process.

As she works toward her doctorate in entomology over the next four years, Meineke is pursuing several projects of interest.  “I’m working on a story-telling series,” she says, “with [fellow Ph.D. students] Heather Campbell and Colin Funaro, where professors share their experiences with students; serving as outreach coordinator for the Entomology Graduate Student Association; and continuing [N.C. State University Insect Museum’s] annual Hexapod Haiku contest.”

Justin Hills
Rising junior travels to Ghana as he works to address health disparities

Justin Hills

Becky Kirkland photo

With his sights set on a career in public health, Justin Hills works in the laboratory of CALS biologist Dr. Rob Dunn.

For Justin Hills, working in the lab of CALS biologist Dr. Rob Dunn sparked an interest in science communication and public health that he hopes one day to put to use to address racial and ethnic health disparities.

And Hills is not wasting any time in reaching this goal: The rising junior was selected to participate in the Minority Health International Research Training Program, which allowed him to spend 12 weeks this summer conducting liver cancer research at a teaching hospital and doing community service work in Kumasi, Ghana.

After that, he planned to be back at N.C. State pursuing a major in biological sciences, serving as a university ambassador and a member of the Minority Association Pre-Health Students. And then he hopes to go to medical school and, ultimately, into a public health career, helping investigate and eradicate the kinds of illnesses and diseases that disproportionately affect minority communities.

“I’ve always been one to like to explain my biology homework to my mom or to my friends, but I didn’t realize I could make a career of it or there were people who did that for a living,” says the rising junior majoring in biological sciences. “Working in the Dunn Lab afforded me an exceptional opportunity to understand the mechanics of citizen science and its potential benefits to our world.”

Dunn is an internationally known scientist and science writer, and his lab explores the ecology and evolution of everyday spec-ies. Hills worked throughout the 2011-2012 academic year on Dunn’s citizen science projects Bellybutton Biodiversity and the Wild Life of Your Home. He helped with tasks that ranged from assembling kits for the School of Ants project to writing the post “Your backstage pass to DNA extraction” for the Your Wild Life blog at http://yourwildlife.org.

Through his work in the Dunn lab, Hills has seen how citizen science can raise people’s interest in research, and he believes this interest can be key to helping reduce the incidence of such health problems as diabetes, hypertension and HIV/AIDS.

“I believe that if we inspire people to find wonder and amazement in hands-on scientific research,” he says, “evolutionary lifestyle changes can occur that will alter the prevalence of common complications in nutrition, reproductive health and even chronic disease.”

David Higgins
Fellowship-winning student focuses on flower development

David Higgins

Becky Kirkland photo

David Higgins earned his degree in genetics in plant biology in May 2012, and now he's pursuing a Ph.D. in plant biology at the University of Georgia.

A lifelong interest in plants blossomed for May 2012 graduate David Higgins as he worked with Dr. Bob Franks in the Department of Genetics to find out more about how plants make flowers. Higgins, who earned his bachelor’s degree in genetics and plant biology, plans to pursue a Ph.D. in plant biology at the University of Georgia starting this fall.

While growing up in Winston-Salem, Higgins and his father gardened together, always trying to think up ways to make the plants grow better. “As I grew older and took high school biology courses, my questions … changed from how could we grow better plants to how do plants grow themselves.”

And that was precisely the question that occupied him during his CALS research experiences as he and Franks looked at how different genes are involved in flower development.

While at N.C. State, Higgins was a member of the University Honors Program and the marching band. From the American Society of Plant Biologists, he received a 2011 summer undergraduate research fellowship.

Higgins said his undergraduate research experiences helped him learn more about what it takes to achieve his career goal: to become a scientist working in either academia or industry. “I’m learning how to phrase the questions you are asking and how to turn those questions into experiments – and how to get answers from your experiments, even if they don’t turn out the way that you planned them to,” he says.

The research process also helped Higgins learn more about himself, he says. “I’m learning that I’m not content with just leaving something unanswered. And if something goes wrong, I want to go back and flip through all my notes and figure out what I can change and do again to make it better.”

Brett Williams
Aspiring wildlife biologist stars on N.C. State’s stage

Becky Kirkland photo

Brett Williams is an award-winning actress and aspiring animal conservationist.

While working hard to earn a bachelor’s degree in zoology, Brett Williams has also made time for play – or, more precisely, plays. The young actress received the N.C. State arts program’s  2010-2011 Performing Artist Award for Theater for roles in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and the satirical comedy musical Urinetown, and she went on to perform in Philadelphia Story and Rent during the 2011-2012 season.

Though the practice schedule is demanding – up to four hours a night for the month leading up to the show – Williams says she finds acting fun and a release from the day-to-day stress of academic work.

As the rising senior balances her college workload with her theater schedule, Williams also makes time to serve as an animal care and tour volunteer with Carolina Tiger Rescue in Pittsboro.  She enjoys the interaction she gets there with exotic cats, and that experience – coupled with a study-abroad trip related to ecology and conservation in Namibia – cinched her decision to pursue a career in wildlife conservation and rehabilitation.

During her senior year, Williams hopes to secure an animal care internship and begin applying for jobs in “animal care, training, rehabilitation and maybe even educating the public about animals,” she says. “I like doing hands-on things,” she says, “and interacting with animals is exciting – they all have such different personalities.”

Alex Johnson
Graduate student and Wolfpack basketball player aims high

Alex Johnson

Becky Kirkland photo

Alex Johnson made his mark on the N.C. State basketball court as he pursued master's studies in family and youth development.

Alex Johnson came to N.C. State University in the fall of 2011 mainly to play basketball, but as he has pursued his master’s degree studies in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ family and youth development program, his desire to work with young people has grown. And so now the self-described go-getter now has not one career goal but three: to play professional basketball, to work in sports communication and to serve as a mentor for troubled youth.

“Working with youth … has become the recent goal that I want to accomplish,” Johnson says, “because, growing up, I didn’t have someone to look out for me, to mentor me through the good times and bad times. I didn’t have a father figure. It was just my mom and I and my sisters.”

Johnson grew up in Toronto, Canada, where basketball became his passion. As an undergraduate, Johnson played for California State-Bakersfield and earned a bachelor’s degree in communication. Because Johnson was injured and unable to play for a year there, he was eligible to continue playing collegiate ball after graduation. That’s why he came to N.C. State for graduate school. With the Wolfpack, Johnson was a point guard and had the chance to play to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA tournament.

As for his next move,“I am still trying to figure it out,” he says. “I’m trying to complete my master’s, but I’m also looking to play professionally. Right now, I’m looking for an agent to represent me and, God willing, will be able to play somewhere.

“I’ve told myself not to worry – don’t look so far in the future and just live for today,” he says. “I’ve been happy with the journey so far.”

-Dee Shore

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