By Caitlin Edwards
Lauren Hagler fell in love with Chemistry during her first general chemistry class at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. The lab, which was set up like a fictional crime scene, was designed to provide hands-on opportunities to learn different lab techniques, the results of which lead students to a fictional suspect. Hagler loved the science, but not the crime – during her undergraduate career she quickly decided she’d rather solve medical queries than criminal ones.
Fast-forward to the summer of 2015 and she officially embarked on her journey to do just that as a first year PhD candidate in chemistry and one of six Sloan Scholars at the University of Illinois.
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is one of three institutions awarded a grant by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's expanded Minority Ph.D. Program to support underrepresented minority doctoral students in science, technology, engineering and math fields. Over the course of several years, fifty scholars will be recruited and fully funded. Hagler is one of the first Illinois Sloan scholars on campus.
Hagler was invited to Illinois before the semester began to participate in the Summer Pre-Doctoral Institute (SPI) where she joined other incoming graduate students from U.S. populations underrepresented in graduate programs on campus for a nine-week summer research session.
“[At SPI] I got a jumpstart on research and professional development. I also built a tight network of people. We have a cohort. We lived and worked together that summer and now we are continuing that relationship, so I got to start my degree as part of a community,” Hagler said.
After a first semester of introductory courses and exploration, Hagler joined the Zimmerman lab where she works on a project for drug discovery of myotonic dystrophy, a form of muscular dystrophy. Her lab is looking at the multifaceted synthesis of small molecules in an attempt to discover the organic molecules that can be used as drugs to treat myotonic dystrophy. The disease isn’t one that many labs study which means that Hagler and her colleagues have the opportunity for more patient interaction than they might otherwise experience.
“[Patients] write to you and share their stories…. I feel like I have the chance to really help someone and really see the person I’m helping,” she said. This May, she’ll participate in the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) “Muscle Walk” of Springfield, Illinois with her lab to promote awareness of the disease and fundraise for a cure.
“Illinois is growing as a diverse community, but it’s not there yet. I feel like there’s a lot of support for diversity and wanting underrepresented minorities to do well – programs like SPI and Sloan – that other universities aren’t doing. The support network here helped me learn the unwritten rules of grad school that you need to know to succeed,” Hagler said. “There are a lot of resources at Illinois - even if your department doesn’t have the info you need, someone else will be able to give it to you. At Illinois, the only person limiting you is you. That’s not always the case at other schools.”
In addition to her research, Hagler is also a fervent proponent for advancing minority women in STEM fields. “My passion in life is to be the face for another young girl who is coming up who doesn’t think that chemistry or science is achievable, especially young black girls,” Hagler said. “There are a lot of programs geared toward black males and toward girls, I hope to one day create an outreach program and be a leader to help address the lack of minority women in STEM fields.”
For more information about Graduate College Educational Equity programs, check out our website.
"The Meet Our Fellows" series highlights fellowship, scholarship, and award recipients at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Caitlin Edwards is the Communications Specialist at the Graduate College. She's currently pursuing a Master's of Science degree in Tourism Management at the university. Her research focuses on sustainable community development through tourism and in her free time, you can find her traveling, cooking, and exploring with her handsome pug, Torbin.