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May 20, 2015

Rebecca Carlson: What else is in store?

May 20, 2015

Rebecca Carlson is an Honors College junior majoring in chemical engineering in the College of Engineering and Chinese in the College of Arts and Letters. She was recently awarded the nationally competitive Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship.

When I started out at Michigan State, I didn't feel that different from most other students. I had a general idea that I liked science and I was excited to do research through the Professorial Assistant Program, but I didn't yet have a precise long-term goal in mind or a detailed plan of how to get there.

Now, almost two years later, I still can't say that I have certainly found a single passion that I am aiming for. I have, however, found many things that I deeply care about. I have learned much more than I thought possible in four brief semesters and become engaged in research that excites me while delving into my chemical engineering courses. At the same time, I have learned about other cultures through my Chinese major and forged connections with students from all over the world.

While I still don't have all of the details of my future figured out, I feel very fortunate to have received excellent guidance through peers, graduate students, and faculty. Particularly Dr. Patrick Walton, in whose lab I have been working during the entire time I have been at MSU, has helped me immensely in my search for the next steps in college and beyond.

Curious to find out more about what sparked his passion for mentoring students, I asked him why mentoring was so important to him. He said that he still remembers when, as an undergraduate walking through the engineering building, he passed a professor in the hallway and heard the professor tell his colleague, “And that young man is going to do exceptionally well on my final exam.”

Interactions such as this with faculty gave him confidence as an undergraduate and demonstrated that faculty can have a great impact on students by ensuring that students have a broad enough vision of their capacities. Now, as a professor, Dr. Walton desires to push his students to be better and challenge them in the hopes of seeing students succeed and get a sense of their true potential.

Personally, I have seen Dr. Walton exemplify this type of mentorship for myself and other undergraduate researchers. During my freshman year, he made sure that I was considering graduate school as a career option and suggested that I apply for the Goldwater Scholarship, a prestigious scholarship for undergraduates designed to “foster and encourage excellence in mathematics, the natural sciences, and engineering.” 

A bit intimidated by the prospect of applying to such a scholarship and writing personal statements about my career goals, I initially decided to not pursue it further. However, when I returned to school in the fall of my sophomore year, he continued giving me gentle reminders until I finally decided to apply.

Though the application process certainly required a lot of time and effort, by the time I sent in my final application I realized that I was grateful I had applied regardless of whether or not I ultimately won the scholarship. Albeit sometimes begrudgingly written, my application essays helped me start forming a clearer idea of where I wanted to be in the future, and, even more importantly, realize how far I had already come.

The activities and research experiences that I included were less a testament to my talents than a measure of the wealth of opportunities made available to me at Michigan State. I love being involved with the College of Engineering Residential Experience as a tutor, connecting with international students through my role as a leader in Bridges International, and doing research in Dr. Walton's lab on small interfering RNAs.

But, more importantly than these and other activities I have been involved in, I have been truly overwhelmed by the generosity of people that I have met here. Dr. Walton and others have taken the time to invest in me and helped me grow by challenging me with tough questions that I have wrestled with and still continue to think through. The trust that others have placed in me through devoting precious energy and effort towards my success has given me confidence to push myself and test the limits of my abilities.

Now, after learning this spring that I won a Goldwater Scholarship and having obtained a summer internship at the National Institutes of Health, I am even more grateful. I am excited to give back by serving as a mentor and resource for younger students during the rest of my time here as I continue to grow through the efforts of other Spartans, along with my own drive for exploring the limits of my field. And I can't help but be excited as I ponder this: If two years of being part of the Michigan State community have given me so much, how much more is in store for me over the next two years of college?