Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Montana Tech or the University of Montana.
When I look back on the last four years as a student at Montana Tech, I can’t believe how different my life looks than what I imagined as a freshman. In the past four years, I’ve been on 38 flights, to seven major U.S. cities, and to four different countries. And here’s the catch—I haven’t paid a dime for travel. As a freshman, I never imagined that I’d get do to something I love—scientific research and travel—and get paid to do it.
Also during my freshman year at Tech, I honed my writing skills in Dr. Pat Munday’s Environmental Writing class. I loved the concept of writing about nature, and used John Muir’s musings as inspiration for my Wordpress blog Adventure is Out There. That summer, armed with a MacBook and a Canon SL-1 courtesy of the Tech communications department, I developed content for my blog, which went viral when it was featured on Wordpress’s Freshly Pressed weekly lineup.
In December of the following year, I traveled to San Francisco to present my Glacier botany research at the American Geophysical Union Conference. Besides going up to Glacier the past summer, this was my first time traveling alone. I spent the week exploring art galleries, parks, beaches and restaurants, as well as attending lectures by NASA and National Geographic employees at the conference, of course.
The following summer, I packed my bags for a National Science Foundation-funded internship in the Mariana Islands. Being nearly 10,000 miles from home was difficult at first, but the duration of the three-month internship brought new adventures—running 5k’s through the jungle, scuba diving with barracudas, and brunching on the beach, to name a few.
As a junior, I started to think long and hard about where I wanted to go next—both travel-wise and career-wise. Attending the Emerging Researchers National Conference in Washington, D.C. cemented my decision to apply to Ph.D. programs in Ecology. That next summer, I headed back up to Glacier National Park armed with a NSF-EPSCoR grant funding my own independent research project.
My senior year, I started applying to graduate schools, but it was back in San Francisco that December where I caught my break. The head of the Botany department at the University of Wyoming stopped by my poster presentation. UW had just secured a 20 million-dollar EPSCoR grant to study microbial gradients across the state of Wyoming, and they were looking for Ph.D. students. After interviewing at the school a couple of months later, I was offered a position studying plant-microbe interactions in Grand Teton National Park, and I accepted.
This summer, I’m headed back to Washington D.C. to present at a bacteriophage conference, and then I’m spending a week exploring Canada’s Banff and Jasper National Parks with my mom. Then it’s back to Butte for a quick stop at the Montana Folk Fest, then down to Wyoming to start my Ph.D. work. It’s crazy how God works in our lives—you don’t always get what you want, but you always get what you need. I thought I wanted to be a college athlete, but life quickly turned in a different direction, and I ended up loving it.
That’s true with a lot of things—sometimes things don’t work out the way you want them to, but in the end, it’s for the best. Just today, I had a girl I knew in high school tell me how much of an inspiration I was to her. She said that she sees me as a role model who is unapologetically herself, and who chases her goals and dreams wholeheartedly. Hearing that from a girl from my hometown was incredibly humbling, and it really put things into perspective. I’m not just doing this for myself—I’m doing this for every girl who wants to pursue her goals and passions, but who is timid or afraid or apprehensive. I want to continue to be an inspiration for those girls, and to show them that success is nothing but a combination of opportunity and hard work.
The past four years have been a wild ride. At times, it’s been lonely, sad, uncertain, stressful and scary. But for every down moment, there’s been five moments where I feel like—and sometimes am—on top of the world. I can’t begin to tell you how many amazing moments I’ve experienced, from cuddling up to a bonfire on the beach, to sledding down a snowfield in the middle of August, to skinny dipping in the Pacific Ocean under the stars, to eating Peanut M&M’s on the top of a mountain with the world sprawled out before me. For every moment I’ve been frustrated and exhausted and feel like I can’t go anymore, there are a million more moments where I’ve felt victorious, encouraged, passionate, and free.
It’s fun to look back on where I came from, but it’s also exciting to think about how far I have to go. In five years, I wonder what I’ll think of the girl who is writing this editorial right now. I don’t know what the future holds, but what I do know is this—the best is yet to come.
“She is free in her wilderness—she is a wanderess, a drop of free water. She knows nothing of borders and cares nothing for rules or customs. Time, for her, isn’t something to fight against. Her life flows clean, with passion, like fresh water.” – Roman Payne