Our Featured Alumni for Spring 2016 is Dr. Nicole Hughes. Dr. Hughes finished her MS at Appalachian in 2004 under the supervision of Dr. Howie Neufeld.
What do you currently do?
I am currently an Assistant Professor of Biology at High Point University (in High Point, NC), and teach courses in General Botany, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Global Change Ecology, and Environmental Science. I also work with undergraduate research students interested in plant ecology and physiology.
Why did you pick App State for graduate work?
I am originally from Florida, but my family owns a cabin about 30 min outside of Boone. We vacationed there from the time I was 13 onwards, and it didn't take long for me to fall in love with the mountains. However, I didn't have the courage to leave my home state immediately after high school, and so I stayed in Florida for college (I attended Stetson University in DeLand). For the next four years, I constantly fantasized about transferring to App, and took every opportunity I could to abscond to the mountains with my friends. By the time I was looking at Master's programs, there was really only one place I wanted to be—App State. It was literally the only place I applied to. Honestly, I didn't know anything about the program, I just knew that I needed to be there. The mountains had been calling me since I was 13 and I was ready to go!
Did getting your MS degree help you with your current career? How?
Absolutely. After graduating from college, I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in biology, but I was unsure about which area of biology I wanted to focus on. I felt like the MS allowed me to "test the waters" while still working towards a degree. I began my MS with the intention of doing molecular biology with Dr. Mary Connell, but ended up gravitating towards the "form and function" questions that Howie was working on. By the time I was looking at PhD programs, I had a much better idea of what interested me (you are also much more competitive for a PhD program if you have a MS!).
Secondly, I felt that I was much better prepared for research during my PhD program than many of my peers. My research advisor at Wake Forest University, although an excellent scientist, was very hands-off; we were expected to figure out how to use equipment, run statistics, and choose field sites completely on our own. This proved to be an enormous challenge for some of my peers who had entered the program directly from college, but it was ok for me-- I felt like I knew what I was doing. Throughout my PhD, I was constantly drawing on the knowledge and experience I had gained at ASU, and I truly believe that I was that much more successful because of it!
Do you have any advise/tips to give to current graduate students for:
a. Their time here
Don't dismiss a field of biology just because you think you won't like it. When I was filling out my application for grad school at App State, I literally wrote: "Research Interests: Anything but plants". Today I am a plant ecophysiologist (and I love my job!). You can't know if you will like something (or not) until you actually try it.
b. Career choices
Get it out of your mind that there is just ONE job that will make you happy. This way of thinking will not only limit your job options, but I am also pretty sure that it just isn't true. I prefer to think that we all have a "cloud" of jobs that suit our personalities and interests. For example, in my case, the things that are most important to me are: teaching, being outside, understanding how the world works, and making the world a better place. While I do love being a biology professor, I recognize that there are lots of other jobs that could have just as easily fit those categories, and led to a satisfying, productive career.
Similarly, don't worry if you don't have a clear picture of where exactly you are going in life—just keep moving towards things that feel right, and away from things that don't, and chances are you'll end up in a job you enjoy.