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Creating a Merck Scholar Legacy

eNews Header Fall 2015University of Washington senior Taylor Boyd joined a prestigious group when she received a United Negro College Fund/Merck Undergraduate Science Research Scholarship for the 2015-16 academic year.

The honor, which provides up to $25,000 to support tuition and a research-based internship, is awarded to just 15 African American undergraduates from across the nation each year who are interested in pursuing science or engineering.

Merck Scholars
The three most recent Merck scholars (from left to right) Taylor Boyd, Dirir Abdullahi and Sarra Tekola. Photo: Erin Rowley

Even more impressive is the fact that Boyd is the fifth Husky to receive the scholarship since 2010. The neurobiology major follows previous scholarship recipients and alumni Dirir Abdullahi, ’15 (2014 recipient), Chinonso Opara, ‘14 (2013 recipient), Sarra Tekola, ‘15 (2013 recipient) and Alexandra Herndon, ‘11 (2010 recipient).

“It’s really exciting,” said Boyd who wants to become a doctor who works with underserved populations. “I think of it as a window of opportunity because there is so much I know I’ll be able to do now because of it.”

Boyd completed her internship over the summer through a partnership between the University of Venda in South Africa and the University of Virginia. The 10-week long program featured two weeks spent on campus in Charlottesville, Va., and eight weeks doing research in the province of Limpopo in South Africa. Her work studied methods used for curing HIV and AIDS, as well as “the intersections between their traditional medicine and western medicine.”

Boyd is definitely right about that “window of opportunity” if the paths of her predecessors are any indication.

Alex HerndonHerndon, who earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, just started her third year in medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, where she also works in the hospital and clinics. 

“Both the internship and scholarship made a huge impact on my life, both then and now,” she said. “At the time I was struggling to pay for tuition and housing, working part-time while going to school and pursuing research at the UW.”

The award not only helped ease Herndon’s financial burdens, it helped shape her academic path after graduation. Through her internship in the medicinal chemistry department at the Merck research site in Rahway, New Jersey, she was exposed to a different field of research in her area of study.

“The experience I had as a UNCF-Merck scholar allowed me to tailor my goals beyond graduating from the UW,” she said. “I was able to network with various amazing researchers in multiple fields and not solely chemistry. As a result, I began finding answers to many of my curiosities and questions, and began to see how I could do what I was interested in within other contexts.”

Today, Herndon is still debating what area of medicine she would like to focus on, but at the top of her list is emergency medicine and a possible future fellowship in neurology critical care or forensic pathology.

Chinonso OparaOpara, who earned his undergraduate degree in biochemistry, is in his second year at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. His award made a lasting impact on his dream to become a physician as well.

“The Merck internship took me directly behind the scenes into how the medicines we give patients in the hospital on a daily basis make it from the bench to the bedside,” he said. “It gave me firsthand experience into how pharmaceutical agents could be altered and formulated in ways that take into account the stories that patients bring with them. I hope to be the type of physician who considers issues from all angles and being a Merck Scholar brought me one step closer to that goal.”

The honor held an ever deeper meaning for Opara. When he was six years old his father (a physician) and his mother (a nurse) moved the family from Nigeria to the United States for greater opportunities.

“At a young age, I was deeply inspired by the sacrifices my parents made, especially as they worked diligently to earn their respective licenses in the U.S.,” Opara said. “The internship and scholarship were a direct affirmation of the many sacrifices my family made in order for my siblings and me to benefit from the vast educational opportunities in the United States.”

For recent graduate Abdullahi, who earned his undergraduate degree in neurobiology last June, the Merck scholarship was the difference-maker for whether he could even pay for his UW tuition.

“I wouldn’t be in school without it,” he said. “Nor would I be able to support myself and my living conditions well.”

Abdullahi’s internship experience also exposed him to a great deal of opportunity.

“It really opened up an entirely new side of research I never thought I would enjoy,” he said. “Merck also helped me with counseling, connecting me with different research facilities all across the country. It’s not just money or an internship, there is continuous follow-up which is really nice.”

Like Herndon and Opara, Abdullahi plans to pursue medical school and possibly a Ph.D. as well.

Tekola’s field of study is a bit different than the other Merck scholars. She graduated in June with a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and resource management. Tekola is working as a legislative aide for Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien and will start a Ph.D. program in sustainability at Arizona State University next year.

Because many college internships in environmental science are unpaid, it wasn’t until Tekola received the Merck award that she could afford to pursue those positions. As a result, in addition to her Merck-funded scholarship she was able to work at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Bikeworks. Not having to support herself financially while attending school also allowed her to get involved in several causes. Tekola worked on a campaign to get the UW to divest from fossil fuels and became involved in the Black Lives Matter movement.

And what she learned from these experiences continue to make a lasting impact.

“All of my internships in the lab allowed me to realize that climate change will not be solved with science but with political and social change,” she said. “That is why I am working in the City Council now, instead of a lab. It is also why I have become politically active and have become an agent of change in my community and globally.”

What all five Huskies have in common is that they participated in OMA&D programs that support students pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

“OMA&D does a very good job of connecting its students to vital resources,” said Opara. “For example, my participation in the STEM bridge program the summer before my freshman year played a large role in helping me get to where I am now. During that time, I was connected with several mentors on campus who helped me get lab and research experience early on. They provided a strong framework from which I further developed my interest in health and medicine.”

And Opara doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that so many OMA&D students have been recognized with the Merck award.

“Having known several of my UW STEM colleagues, I can attest that they are among the hardest working students I know,” he said. “I am very proud of what we have been able to accomplish.”