As a high school senior at North Marion High School in Farmington, West Virginia, Hannah Haller was ready to receive her diploma, turn her graduation cap’s tassel to the left and begin making the short commute to Fairmont State University, her hometown institution, where she planned to become a biology student with the ultimate goal of pursuing dentistry – a career choice she viewed as both logical and financially sound. It was not long after stepping foot on Fairmont State’s hilltop campus, however, that Haller met an impactful individual, academic advisor and Professor of Chemistry Dr. Erica Harvey, who would open her eyes to a different path: research.
“She told me that I should look into doing research to boost my resume,” said Haller, who graduated from Fairmont State in 2018 with degrees in both biology and chemistry. “I did it, and immediately thought ‘Wow, this seems way more fun than being a dentist.’”
Haller’s experimentation in the research field turned into a full-fledged passion, and a fruitful one at that. Now a student pursuing her Ph.D. in cell, molecular, developmental biology and biophysics at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Haller was recently awarded a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation to help fund her thesis project for the next three years through an annual stipend and a cost of education allowance. The fellowship also provides recipients access to professional development opportunities.
“A Fairmont State education is a profound, lifechanging experience for our graduates, many of whom are first-generation college students,” said Mirta M. Martin, Fairmont State University president. “Because of our ‘just right’ size and expert teacher-mentors, Fairmont State students are often able to dive into meaningful research much sooner and at a more impactful level than they might at other schools. Hannah Haller is a shining example of just how far a Fairmont State education can take you. We couldn’t be prouder to have her as a member of our Falcon Family, and we look forward to watching her thrive as she continues to pursue her education and impressive research.”
For Haller, a first-generation college student, receiving the prestigious fellowship not only alleviates a financial burden, but it also reaffirms her capabilities as a scientist and puts to rest any doubt whether she belongs.
“It was so exciting I didn’t believe it at first,” said Haller. “Something I struggle with a lot is that my background is so different than that of many of my peers. Receiving this fellowship was really validating and reassured me that I’m supposed to be here, and that science is for people like me.”
The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship entails a competitive application process and is bestowed upon select students who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees in STEM disciplines at accredited US institutions. Haller now shares her distinction as an NSF fellow with some notable company; numerous Nobel Prize winners, former U.S. Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, Google founder, Sergey Brin and Freakonomics co-author, Steven Levitt are all previous winners of the fellowship. To become part of such an accomplished club is special for Haller, who hopes other students with similar backgrounds will feel supported and inspired to pursue STEM paths.
“It’s so encouraging to see the NSF supporting first-generation students because it’s so hard to get a bachelor’s degree and figure that out, let alone pursue a doctoral degree,” she said. “Before attending Fairmont State, I didn’t know anyone who worked in science; my professors were the only people I knew with Ph.D.s.’”
At Johns Hopkins, Haller’s thesis is focused on how the ribosomes found inside cells make proteins, and how those proteins fold into their native, functional structure – a topic that, if better understood, could lead to advances in science and medicine.
“The motivation behind studying protein folding is that when the proteins don’t fold correctly, it can cause disease like Alzheimer’s and other neuro-degenerative diseases that aren’t well understood,” said Haller. “So, studying how they form their functional structure helps us figure out why it goes wrong and leads to these diseases.”
Though the theme of Haller’s work is different from the organic synthesis research she conducted with Dr. Andreas Baur as an undergraduate, she says the mentorship she received and basic research skills she learned at Fairmont State prepared her well for her current studies.
“My experience at Fairmont State was perfect to help me end up where I am now,” said Haller. “I got the chance to work one-on-one with professors a lot more. If I didn’t attend Fairmont State, I wouldn’t have gotten to know my teachers as well and I wouldn’t have gotten the advice that I got.”
Upon completing her Ph.D., Haller aspires to a career in academia so that she can teach and mentor other future scientists, much like Harvey and Baur did her.
“It would be really rewarding to come back to West Virginia, at least for a portion of my career, so that I can give back to the area I came from and inspire the next group of first-generation students to try something new, scary and exciting like getting a Ph.D.,” she said. “It would be really cool to bring it full circle.”