Dr. Melissa Armstrong, Chair of the Department of Science and Chemistry Instructor at Gaston College, believes that Mitchem has that spark. “When I met Megan for the first time last August, she asked to do a research project with me,” said Dr. Armstrong. “Given that she had not yet taken General Chemistry, I wasn’t sure what she would be able to accomplish. I agreed and sent her off to do a literature search, expecting it to take her a week or more to find useful articles. She was back in two days with five recent and relevant articles. Once she started the project, she found out that research isn’t just about trying one thing one way, but more about ‘99 ways not to do it.’ Megan kept plugging away to find a method that gave her useful information. I know many experienced researchers who don’t have the persistence that Megan has. I know she will be a wonderful representative of Gaston College as our first ever Goldwater Scholar.”
After graduating from North Lincoln High School, Mitchem was in the healthcare industry for 10 years, on the direct support staff at a group home for the mentally handicapped for six years and as a dialysis technician for over four years. As a newly single mother after a divorce, she decided to go back to school so she would be better able to provide for her son. She enrolled in Gaston College in January 2017 with the intention of pursuing a career in nursing. Dr. Dawn Marin’s Introduction to General Chemistry class initially sparked Mitchem’s interest in science. Working with Joe Issa, the Gaston College Lab Staff Associate and Mitchem’s work-study supervisor, was extremely impactful. Issa and Mitchem spent hours in the lab each week preparing solutions, setting up labs and discussing research. “I absolutely loved being in the lab,” said Mitchem. “I still wanted to work with renal patients, but decided that I would prefer pursuing a career in renal research.”
At Gaston College, Mitchem participated in the Science Club, Gamma Beta Phi, work study, and the SPARC program. As part of the SPARC program, she did research into removing phosphates, which can be toxic to individuals in renal failure, prior to consumption. Mitchem presented her research, titled “Decreasing Phosphates and Mortality,” at a Community College Undergraduate Research Initiative (CCURI) colloquium in Arizona.
Mitchem will transfer to UNC-Charlotte to complete her undergraduate degree. “I am currently enrolled in the Biology program, but I am in the process of looking for the right pathway for me to follow to reach my overall goals,” she said. “I prefer Chemistry, but know that Biochemistry will probably be the most beneficial for medical research.”
Her goal is to earn a Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and she intends to conduct research that benefits individuals in renal failure through biological manipulation and medical advancement.
Her interest in renal research is personal. “My grandmother passed away when I was 10 years old,” said Mitchem. “She was my hero. She had a rare kidney disease that eventually took her life. Dialysis gave me five years with her that I would not have had otherwise. This is what prompted my career in dialysis. I needed to do more, and finding ways through medical research to help individuals that are in renal failure is the way I plan to do that.”
Being a recipient of the Goldwater Scholarship has confirmed to Mitchem that she made the right decision to leave the nursing program. “The scholarship has just reiterated the fact that I can do this, and that I have made the right choice in changing careers,” she said. “I faced a lot of adversity when I first decided to switch majors as many people tried to persuade me to stay in the nursing field. I feel like now I have not only my family, Gaston College, and the SPARC community supporting me, but also an entire community of Goldwater scholars.”
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