PITTSBURG, Kan. Hannah Thomas said she discovered her true purpose helping others through plant biology while studying at Pittsburg State University.
The 22-year-old from Ottawa was one of more than 1,200 PSU students to graduate this weekend, and shell soon be leaving for an Ivy League university, Cornell, located in Ithaca, New York, to pursue a doctorate degree in plant biology.
Thomas wasnt always sure what career path to choose, and ended up changing her major halfway through college.
Originally planning to major in pre-med, Thomas soon discovered her love for botany while taking required biology courses.
Most people really rue the plant section and they hate it, but for me, it was my favorite part and I loved it, Thomas said. I thought botanical science just makes so much sense to me. It really clicked for my brain and I understood it very well.
I had to leave all of my friends that I had been taking classes with for two years, Thomas said. I had a different course load, different teachers. My family was really supportive, so that was a big plus. Some people were like, Youre making a mistake. You need to go into medicine. I had to really know that what I wanted to do was the correct path.
One of her biggest motivators for changing majors was a PSU study-abroad trip to Belize. It was her first time out of the country and she spent three weeks working with doctors to provide health care to locals who could not afford it.
It was an eye-opening experience to go into a rural part of a developing country and the perspectives of seeing people who are starving to death and of people who do not have access to health care, Thomas said.
While I was there, I met a lot of people who were seeking medical care and a lot of their main health problems were based on the fact that they were so malnourished, Thomas said. That experience really influenced my interest in going into food production, agriculture and plant science instead of medicine.
Her passion blossomed even more after she was accepted for a summer internship at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis. She was one of 25 students in the country chosen for the position.
At Danforth, she studied under researcher Blake Meyers, whom Thomas called a very famous plant biologist. He is known for his work in plant genetics and bioinformatics, which is a field of study that uses computers and other technology to analyze biological data, such as the genetic code.
Any school you go to, I could mention his name and people would be very interested to know what we researched. This was the greatest opportunity that I couldve had, as an undergraduate, to really spread my wings and network within plant biology.
Together, Thomas and Meyers researched small ribonucleic acid (RNA), and while there she also got to meet Bill Gates. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation helps fund research and development at the center.
Thomas also gave credit to two professors, Virginia Rider and Neil Snow, for helping her discover her true path. Rider advises pre-med students and coordinates PSUs Kansas IDeA Network for Biomedical Research Excellence. Snow is an assistant professor of botany and director of the T.M. Sperry Herbarium.
Snow said he remembered when Thomas had approached him two years ago and asked to take one of his courses. He said she was focused and hard-working.
Shes got the best time-management skills Ive ever seen in a student in 20 years, Snow said. Shes incredibly effective at getting things done and changing gears. She does very high quality work, as well. Shes very well prepared to start a doctoral program at Cornell.
Thomas last week offered a piece of advice she wishes she couldve given to her freshman self.
Dont listen to what other people want you to do, Thomas said. Do what you want to do. I eventually figured that out, but I had listened to some people for too long. I learned that hard work does pay off and that you can do whatever you want with your life from any school that you choose.
Hannah Thomas also was a member of the Pride of the Plains Drum Line at Pittsburg State University.
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PSU grad blossoms in plant biology - Joplin Globe
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