Heather Murphy is not someone you’d call a slacker. At North Country Union High School in Newport, Vt., she took honors and AP courses, played alto sax in the jazz ensemble, participated in Vermont’s selective Northeast Music Festival, and even won a Congressional Art Award for a charcoal drawing during her senior year.
“I pushed myself pretty hard in high school,” she said, and was clear about her future: She’d be the first in her family to go on to college and earn a bachelor’s degree, planning to become a teacher.
But she discovered a new love — science — in her junior year, when she took several AP science courses to get a taste of the rigorous coursework she could expect in college. “I realized that environmental science was my niche,” she said. “I loved it and even found that reading chapters upon chapters [in science textbooks] didn’t seem like a chore anymore — and I was in classes with students who wanted to learn as much as I did.”
Heather and a few of her classmates chose water quality for their final project and connected with the Memphremagog Watershed Association. They attended the monthly meetings, spoke at an annual meeting and even organized a government-funded buffer planting on Crystal Lake. Heather became a student board member of the MWA, a position she retains to this day.
Deciding on JSC
Heather checked out JSC while she was exploring colleges during high school. “I saw some really great things happening here, but I wanted to go to school farther away from home — I wanted to experience other places,” she said. So she set her sights on a few colleges out of state and ended up applying to JSC “only as a fallback.”
But in 2013, just as Heather was graduating from high school, JSC launched the START Science Scholarship, funded by a $552,000 grant to JSC from the National Science Foundation. Heather learned she could receive up to $40,000 over four years as a biology or environmental studies major at JSC! She had both the grade point average and the financial need required to apply. How could she pass up the opportunity?
So while some of the friends she had made in her AP classes headed off to big-name schools — Yale and Middlebury among them — Heather received a START scholarship and enrolled at JSC. She was less than enthusiastic, she admitted. “I had a really grumpy outlook and started off kind of cocky, thinking I was better than the other students here,” she recalled.
It didn’t take long for Heather to change her tune. “As soon as I let go of that attitude and opened myself up to everything here, I discovered what a great place it is,” she said. “There are lots of different people here and some really challenging classes.”
Staying on Track
She did well that first semester but started slacking off a bit by spring. Her advisor, Professor and START coordinator Les Kanat, called her in. “He can be pretty abrupt –- he’ll call you out if he thinks you should be doing better – and he told me, ‘You could be doing a lot more, and you’re not,’” she said. “When you have a close relationship with a faculty member like I did with Les, you don’t want to let them down. So I set out to prove him wrong.”
And she did, finishing her first year so well that she became the youngest student ever hired to work as a paid research assistant at JSC that summer. “It’s really unusual to work as a paid lab assistant till your junior year,” she explained. Working under the supervision of Dr. Liz Dolci, Heather spent the summer documenting differences between two groups of bacteria and assessing one group’s resistance to antibiotics, earning $5,000 in the process.
By the time her second year at JSC rolled around, the once-reluctant “STARTer” had become one of JSC’s biggest cheerleaders. “I’m just so thankful I came here — there are so many amazing opportunities,” she said. “Why go to a huge school where you struggle even to be noticed by a professor?” Her friends who made those choices are spending most of their time in huge lecture halls, while she’s doing applied research, benefiting from a high-paying summer job and building an impressive resume, she added.
New Hampshire, New Orleans & Other Firsts
And there’s more. During her sophomore year, Heather was the lead author for a paper for one of her research projects, and she traveled with JSC faculty members — all expenses paid — to present research at three professional conferences: the northeast meeting of the Geological Society of America in Bretton Woods, N.H.; the National Conference on Undergraduate Research in Spokane, Wash.; and the American Society for Microbiology meeting in New Orleans.
That’s a pretty big deal for someone who’s only previous trip out of state has been on a bus to Florida with her high school band.
Heather is well on her way to attaining her long-term goal: earning a graduate degree in ecology and landing career in research. “I absolutely love working in a lab and doing research,” she said. “It’s incredibly rewarding.”
Her advice to students considering Johnson State College: “Let go of your preconceived notions and open your mind to the idea that things can be very different than you think. Come here and see what’s going on, check out the labs and the classrooms, and most important, meet the faculty — they’ve done some remarkable things before they came here to teach. The faculty has so much to share and can help you make so many important connections.”