In a “normal” year, students in NCSSM’s online courses come together once a semester for a weekend of in-person labs and field trips. But this year, COVID-19 makes those Online Weekends in Durham impossible, and so, with a virtual Online Saturday on the calendar instead, biology instructor Jon Davis wondered how to provide his genetics students an enriching lab experience.
The answer came from Dr. Morgan Carter, a 2010 alumna just settling into her new bacterial genetics lab in Tucson, AZ, after earning her Ph.D. in plant pathology from Cornell.
Davis, himself an ’88 alum, posted a call for help on the NCSSM Alumni Association’s Facebook page: Would anyone be willing to give a virtual tour of their genetics lab to “help current Unicorns out during this difficult time”?
Carter responded right away.
“I’ve had my eye out for how I could give back to NCSSM for a couple of years,” says Carter. “So much of my scientific journey was started at NCSSM, where I got to really try out different kinds of science. … The coolest thing to me about Science and Math was how specific so many courses were. I remember taking Dr. [Noreen] Naiman’s Molecular Genetics class, and that was what put me on the track to where I am now.”
So in early October, Davis’ online Classical Genetics students, concurrently enrolled at home high schools from Nebo to Biscoe to Morehead City, logged into Zoom to meet Carter, who studies bacterial, fungal and plant genetics and their impacts on plant health.
From her office, she told students about her pathway: a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry (minors in genetics and biotechnology) from N.C. State, before Cornell, and, then, just three months ago, a cross-country move with her husband, Alex Mauney — also a 2010 NCSSM alum — so she could begin work as a postdoctoral researcher in the University of Arizona’s School of Plant Sciences.
She also shared lessons that don’t typically make it onto a resume: how she transferred between colleges, how she learned over time that “sometimes science takes a while.” And she encouraged the high schoolers: Try to get exposure to many types of careers, find a supportive team, and embrace the important aspects of being a scientist that happen outside the lab — writing, speaking, sharing, and advocating.
And then, Carter — masked up and holding her phone out in front of her — led the students into the lab, stopping by her lab bench before showing them chemical safety hoods, a gel-loading station, and a thermal cycler; peeking into a minus 80°(C) chest freezer and an incubator stacked with 150 plates she’s using to grow bacteria.
During the tour, Carter took students’ questions, careful to answer each and every one: What was the hardest part of getting your Ph.D.? What does a typical day at the lab look like for you? What video games do you like to play?
Providing this kind of career exposure to younger students is important to Carter because for a long time she didn’t know that the field she’s now in even existed.
“I try to do a lot of outreach with students so they can see how many different types of science there are, and there are a lot of places they can find out where their interests align, and also maybe where their ethics align,” she says.
For Davis, Carter turned out to be an insightful guest speaker.
“Sometimes when students see scientists on TV, it doesn’t really portray what goes on in a lab, so it was great to see and talk to her,” he says.
And Davis believes that when it comes time for him to introduce a unit on Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug’s work to boost worldwide food production — which might not always resonate with students — this semester they’ll be thinking “Dr. Carter thought this was really important.”
In fact, Carter says feeding the world — making it safer and more sustainable to do agriculture through utilizing better biocontrols — is what drives her research on plant diseases.
In a year when NCSSM faculty are having to figure out how to do a lot of things differently, the greater Unicorn community is still happy to support learning.
“How many other scientists go back to their high school?” Davis said. “I just really appreciate Dr. Carter’s interest in the school.”
“As she was saying goodbye, ‘Thank you; thank you so much’ was coming into the chat box,” says Davis. “[The students] really appreciated it.”
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