May 08, 2017 11:00AM
Many of us can point to a person or event that changed the direction of our lives. For Hannah Thomas, it’s several people and two amazing experiences.
Thomas and more than 1,200 other Pittsburg State University students will receive degrees at commencement exercises May 12-13. From Pitt State, Thomas will go directly into a doctoral program in plant biology at Cornell.
It’s not the path Thomas expected to be on, when she came to PSU from Ottawa, Kansas.
“I was thinking pre-med,” Thomas said.
A member of the Honors College and also the Pride of the Plains Drum Line, Thomas settled into campus life quickly and began taking the biology classes she would need for the pre-med program.
She realized something in the classes that covered biology of both plants and animals.
“It seems as if everyone hates the plant side, but I loved it,” Thomas said. “Plants make so much more sense than animals.”
She also came to understand some things about herself.
“I realized I didn’t like the health care system, but I still loved science,” Thomas said. “I also fell in love with research. There are moments in the lab when you realize, ‘I could do this my whole life!’”
In 2014, Thomas joined a biology student trip to Belize and it changed her life.
“It was a very eye-opening experience,” Thomas said. “For the first time in my life, I met someone who might very possibly starve to death. I realized that medicine wasn’t going to save them if they had no food.”
In the first semester of her junior year, Thomas switched her focus from pre-med to plant biology.
Then came a second amazing experience. Thomas was accepted for a summer internship at the prestigious Donald Danforth Plant Sciences Center at St. Louis where she worked under researcher Blake Meyers, who is known for his pioneering work in bioinformatics and plant genetics.
At the Plant Sciences Center, Thomas found herself at the center of groundbreaking research that has the potential to change the world. She even met Bill and Melinda Gates, who came to check on research their foundation is supporting.
Thomas said the internship at the Plant Sciences Center was one of the reasons she was accepted into the Ph.D. program at Cornell, but she gives most of the credit to her professors for giving her the tools she needed.
“Dr. Virginia Rider (Rider advises pre-med students and coordinates the campus Kansas IDeA Network for Biomedical Research Excellence) had a big impact on my development,” Thomas said. “Dr. Neil Snow (Snow is an assistant professor of botany and director of the T.M. Sperry Herbarium) and Dr. Rider were really important in helping me figure out my path.”