WCU student Marissa Taylor awarded prestigious EPA fellowship

Marissa Taylor works in the Mosquito and Vector-Borne Infectious Disease Facility at WCU.

Marissa Taylor works in the Mosquito and Vector-Borne Infectious Disease Facility at WCU.

Marissa Taylor, a junior at Western Carolina University, has received one of 34 fellowships conferred by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to undergraduate students studying environmental science and related fields at universities and colleges across the nation.

The awards, announced recently, are part of EPA’s Greater Research Opportunities fellowship program and provide students the opportunity to gain hands-on experience with agency scientists.

“I learned of this fellowship through one of my professors, Tracy Zontek,” Taylor said. The fellowship must be applied for during May of the student’s sophomore year because the fellowship provides funding for two years of tuition, along with the summer internship. To apply, she had to have three letters of recommendation and write a research narrative – essentially an idea of a project she would be interested in studying. “At this point, I had already been doing some work with the Mosquito and Vector-Borne Infectious Disease Facility, so I was able to put together a research narrative,” Taylor said.

The amount of the award can be up to $50,000 over the duration of the fellowship. “I am provided with $22,000 to use for tuition, which equals $11,000 for each of my final two years here at WCU,” Taylor said. “There is also a $5,000 expense allowance, which I can use for things like laboratory supplies, equipment and travel to conferences. The final $23,000 is a stipend, which I use for my living expenses. The stipend also supports my living expenses over the summer.”

Taylor’s internship will take place in San Francisco, California, this summer.

“I will spend 12 weeks working on a project titled ‘Community Air Toxics,’ ” she said. “My project will focus on air pollution risk reduction in communities. Specifically, I will be working with near-road air pollution and wood and coal stoves, particularly with tribal communities.

“After graduation, my dream is to work with the Environmental Protection Agency. I also plan to earn a masters of public health degree. I am very interested in epidemiology, biostatistics, environmental health and environmental justice.”

Taylor credited her laboratory work as essential in preparing for the opportunities that the fellowship will provide. “My work as a student partner in the Mosquito and Vector-Borne Infectious Disease Facility has prepared me more than any other experience for this fellowship,” she said. “Initially, learning how to do effective research, gather data and write proposals prepared me to apply for it. Since then, I have continued to work in the lab.”

Her current project is a partnership between the laboratory at WCU and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s Biology Department and focusing on mosquitoes related to LaCrosse encephalitis, a disease regularly found in residents of Western North Carolina. Taylor gave a work-in-progress talk about the project for WCU’s Undergraduate Expo along with her lab partner, Makensey Campbell. “As I go forward in my career at WCU, I plan to always be involved in undergraduate research,” Taylor said.

The environmental health sciences major from Holly Springs expressed appreciation to Brian Byrd, associate professor in the program, for his support of her research and through the process of applying for the fellowship.

When she is not pursuing her own degree goals in or out of the laboratory, Taylor is often helping others as a tutor in WCU’s Writing and Learning Commons. “My main job is as a Writing Fellow, although I do wear a few hats there,” she said. “As a Writing Fellow, I provide one-on-one writing assistance to students in specific courses. This semester, I am providing writing assistance to students in two classes, ‘Global Disparities in Public Health’ and ‘Introduction to Professional Nursing.’ My work as a Writing Fellow is incredibly fulfilling and allows me to develop my skills, not only as a writer, but in all aspects of communication.”

Taylor also works as a standardized test tutor for the nursing program and is a course tutor for several lower-level environmental health classes.

Taylor plans to join the 360-plus fellows who have completed EPA’s GRO program.

“These students’ ambitious and innovative ideas will help create a more sustainable future,” Lek Kadeli, acting assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Research and Development, said in a news release. “EPA is investing in the next generation of environmental scientists and engineers whose research will help achieve our mission of protecting human health and the environment.”