Emily C. Wilson has been awarded the National Science Foundation's Graduate Research Fellowship Program, the first UC Merced student given this honor.
"It's encouraging to know that my hard work paid off," Wilson said. "I'm honored to receive this fellowship."
NSF's website notes that the Graduate Research Fellowship Program is the oldest of its kind and is known for selecting recipients who achieve high levels of success in their future academic and professional careers.
"The reputation of the GRFP follows recipients and often helps them become life-long leaders that contribute significantly to both scientific innovation and teaching," NSF explains. "Past fellows include numerous Nobel Prize winners, U.S. Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, Google founder, Sergey Brin and Freakonomics co-author, Steven Levitt."
Wilson's award represents the culmination of several years of hard work and direct involvement in interdisciplinary research.
Wilson grew up in the foothills east of Merced. Through high school she said she was never that engaged in her studies, preferring to stay out of doors rather than focus on homework. Her parents encouraged her to pursue a career. Because she needed a little more motivation, they gave Wilson the option to either go to college or pay rent.
She chose college.
Wilson began by taking classes at the Oakhurst Center of the State Center Community College District. There, she met biology instructor Frank Yancey, who was trying to inspire his students to distinguish themselves. He'd take them on botany hikes and give them the opportunity to look at pond water under microscopes after class.
It was gazing into one of those dishes that sparked Wilson's interest in biology.
"There was a whole world of life I couldn't see (without a microscope)," Wilson explained. "But it's alive and active, and I could learn about it."
After taking additional math and science classes at Merced College, Wilson transferred to UC Merced with a 4.0 GPA.
Wilson worked in chemistry labs to help pay for housing and tuition. She was also accepted into the Ronald E. McNair Scholars program . While earning her bachelor's degree in molecular and cell biology, she was the second author on a paper published in BMC Genomics about sea anemones. She also participated in six undergraduate research projects.
As a doctoral student, she's researching microbial ecology using computational biology with Professor Carolin Frank . She participated last year in the UC Merced Graduate Student Association's Scientists of Tomorrow Educational Partnership .
She looks forward to mentoring students who, like herself, just needed a microscope and some pond water.