“One of the biggest things that helped me was connecting with my loved ones.”
When the pandemic first emerged in early 2020 Audrey Brown, HBS’21, found that online classes were novel at first, “but I quickly found myself losing motivation and becoming depressed/anxious due to the day-to-day Zoom monotony and the never-ending doomsday news on social media.” As part of the covid or Zoom college generation, Brown could have put her academic career on hold, pivoted away from a college education… in short given up. But several supportive people, programs and institutions helped her navigate through this singular moment.
“One of the biggest things that helped me early on, the Bountiful native says, “was focusing on connecting with my loved ones. Even something so simple as getting out of my house to go on a walk with my mom was a huge help. I also had to learn to let go of things that were out of my control, and disconnect from the news that was feeding into my anxieties.” Needless to say, those anxieties extended beyond the coronavirus pandemic and included political and social strife unlike most of us can remember in the United States. Then there were challenges from the natural world: a devastating windstorm and the earthquake of 2020.
Aside from family, Brown found support from a bevy of awards and scholarships through the University, College and School of Biological Sciences. Yes, financial help was important, but so was the acknowledgment that came with awards like the AChemS Award for Undergraduate Research, Association for Chemoreception Sciences, 2020; the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program Scholar award (UROP); and an Independent REU project award, Department of Mathematics where Brown had matriculated along with her major in biology.
A four-year Presidential scholarship, a Utah Regent’s Scholarship and a College of Science Dean’s scholarship both facilitated and rewarded her achievements, culminating in her graduation with honors, magna cum laude. She even received a marching band performance scholarship during the 2018/19 academic year.
Another scholarship, however, was just the tip of an iceberg of networking opportunities and a kind of mentoring that can help young women in STEM, like Brown. That program was ACCESS Scholars, a College of Science initiative now in its thirty-fifth year that represents women and individuals from all dimensions of diversity who embody the program values of excellence, leadership, and gender equity.
Brown claims that the program “jumpstarted my research career and increased my appreciation for science as a whole.” The summer after graduating high school she took an interdisciplinary STEM course which introduced her to diverse scientific topics and where she gained an appreciation for the vast amount of research done at the University of Utah.
Today, she has stayed closely involved with the program and has served as a teaching assistant (TA), mentor, and curriculum developer. The ACCESS program places each student in a research lab where they gain firsthand scientific experience by completing a personal research project. Brown was placed with Dr. Alla Borisyuk, a professor in the Department of Mathematics, and studied the olfactory system. This was done in collaboration with and using the data from the Wachowiak lab at the University of Utah, a lab she joined a couple years later, and stayed in for the remainder of her undergraduate career. “I’m forever grateful that I had the opportunity to be exposed to research early on. I quickly fell in love with it and am excited to continue as I work on my PhD.”
That’s right. Brown is now a candidate for her doctorate in biology. She is just finishing up a rotation in which she gains experience in three different labs before deciding where she will spend the remainder of her career as a graduate student.
And the pandemic, of course, has turned into an endurance test for everyone, including Brown. Two years in and she’s added to her repertoire of coping mechanisms. “I try to remind myself of all the positive things that have happened in my life over these past two years, some of which (ironically) never would have happened if the world hadn’t shut down. Rather than dwell on what might have been, I’ve been pushing myself to look for the positives and be grateful for the good in my life. I think that my advice for anyone struggling to find motivation due to the pandemic (or otherwise) would be to focus on finding positives in life, and in connecting with the people in your own circle of influence.”
Brown also finds solace and refuge in music. She plays the flute and the piano. “Music is still one of my favorite hobbies, so I intend to make it a part of my future, though I am no longer in any formal ensembles. I still enjoy playing the flute as often as I can and learning new pieces. I have several family members that also play the flute and I enjoy playing with them on occasion. And I am constantly listening to music of all different genres.’
When she’s not rotating through a variety of Molecular, Cellular and Evolutionary Biology labs, she reads. She recently completed “A Pocket Full of Rye” by Agatha Christie, and “Howl’s Moving Castle,” the fantasy novel by British author Diana Wynne Jones, later made into a celebrated animated film. “Currently, I’m reading ‘Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst’ by Robert Sapolsky, in order to scratch a non-fiction itch I’ve had for a while.” But she concedes along with a whole generation (or two), “My favorite book(s) are the Harry Potter series. I’ve read them several times. They are my ‘go-to’ when I have run out of other things to read.”
Brown considers her grandfather to be her inspiration, even her hero. “My grandfather spent most of his career working for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) research service. He worked on broadening the genetic basis of sugar beet crops by breeding hybrids from wild sugar beet strains.” At the time, the genetic basis for most sugar beet crops was very narrow, making them susceptible to diseases and changing environmental conditions. “His goal was to develop strains with increased disease resistance,” Brown says, “and increased sugar yield. He also investigated the possibility of developing a ‘fuel beet’—a hybrid sugar beet used for making bioethanol.”
The legacy of a grandfather’s example and hard scientific work may not be genetically passed on to a grandchild, but it is, nevertheless, deeply influential for Audrey Brown as the first year of graduate school closes in.