Undergraduate Academic Affairs

June 20, 2024

Finding my way

Nell Thompson

Hiking through the flower-covered rolling hills of the Methow Valley in 2022, my field cohort headed for beaver habitat. Our trail involved crawling under barbed wire in the midday heat, and by the time we finally arrived at the steep slope, I didn’t even attempt to continue.

Photo of Nell Thompson

Nell Thompson is a UW undergraduate majoring in environmental public health and a 2024 awardee of the Husky 100.

I had committed to camping throughout Washington state for the summer to learn more about biocultural conservation, but among the beautiful surroundings, I faced the challenging realities of the field. I needed to change my pathway.

I had entered Transition School (TS) at the Robinson Center for Young Scholars three years prior knowing I was a future English major. It was so evident that Emily Hayman, our winter quarter English instructor, told me I could submit my essays to a journal when I did my upper-level English courses. Not “if” I did, because that wasn’t even a question. That was still the case when Cristina Valensisi, our biology instructor, assigned us to present a scientific article. I selected an article that revealed schistosomes, parasitic disease-causing worms that live inside snails, could be paralyzed by a compound made by rotifers, which also inhabit snails. I had never heard of rotifers, schistosomes or tetracyclic alkaloids, but something about this pathogenic life cycle grabbed my attention and didn’t let go. Expanding on the article for my final project, I learned how dams create habitat for host snails, and how schistosomiasis is one of several neglected diseases impacting impoverished populations. This project exposed me to new and fascinating ideas and those worms still occupy my mind years later.

I had never considered studying disease, partly because, despite my accomplishments in English, I was “bad” at math. My struggles had been overlooked in public school, and when I started precalculus in TS, I was convinced I would be expelled. Not only did that not happen, but my math instructor Reese Johnston became the first math teacher to help me understand why my reasoning wasn’t working out. As a verbal processor, I still follow his advice to write out all of my given information and calculation steps to keep track of them. Reese encouraged me to apply math to real-world concepts and to ask my own mathematical questions, like how to find the surface area of a blackberry, which apparently you cannot do, or it’s too complex to be worth trying. Either way, I did start thinking outside the box. Reese’s mentorship made me view math as a skill I could learn and use to better understand the topics I’m passionate about, rather than as a barrier.

With schistosomes still on my mind and a newfound interest in their life cycle and ecology, I decided to major in environmental science and resource management my sophomore year. I successfully applied to join the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program, the summer experience that brought me to the Methow Valley and Washington’s many ecoregions. As we studied conservation with tribal and government agencies, researchers and grassroots organizations, I found I loved learning about the land’s history, environmental stewardship and connections to health. But on top of overstimulating fieldwork, I found that ecology itself didn’t address the health and disease aspects I was so interested in. I considered a transition to public health to address these overlapping areas. Simultaneously, the continuous introduction to new site hosts revealed a different form of internal tension.

By the summer of my camping adventures, I had privately known I was transgender for around 5 years. As time passed it became more and more unbearable to ignore, and one night in spring quarter I hastily emailed Elliott, the RC’s academic coach, about how I had been feeling. Elliott and I usually met to discuss academic strategies, but he was also the only adult I trusted to confide in about my identity. His reply was extremely kind and respectful, and in the time since he has helped me find resources and navigate different environments as a trans person. Elliott has always been a pillar of support for me as a UW student and as a person, and I am extremely grateful to him.

A couple months later, I was lying in an Eastern Washington hotel room quarantining from COVID-19, my throat feeling like glass. Camping had trapped me in a stinging awareness of my body and voice; now inside, far from home, and newly unoccupied, I came out to one of my friends over text.

That was the first step into two years of social and medical transition which have been the happiest of my life. My confidence and posture improved so much that I seemed physically taller — disappointingly, I am the same height. The support I received from Elliott and my RC community allowed me to envision a future for myself as the person I know I am, and to take charge in defining my own life.

During my time at the RC and UW, I have blossomed into an entirely different person. A single spark of interest in TS biology prompted me to switch my field of study multiple times. Now I will graduate in 2025 with a B.S. in environmental public health, where all my interests intersect. Instead of sticking to what I am “good” at, I know I can challenge myself in the service of something more fulfilling. This same courage allows me to embrace my identity and advocate for my communities through my research. I walk through the world as a scientist, proud to be my whole self and ready to embrace the boundless possibilities ahead.

Nell Thompson is a UW undergraduate majoring in environmental public health and a 2024 awardee of the Husky 100. Aside from their studies, field experiences and internships, Nell has explored how gender identity, water and soil, natural disasters, colonialism, and infectious disease all intersect and influence population health. Nell loves where their path has taken them and hopes to continue doing community-based work that helps everyone prevent illness and improve their health.