A chance decision in high school and the inspiring poster of a previous dual scholarship recipient has led a West Virginia University senior to the laboratory of one of the University’s notable researchers and her own Goldwater and Udall scholarships.
Teagan Kuzniar, who chose research as a study path during a high school mentorship program, set her sights on being named a Goldwater Scholar during her freshman year at WVU when she spotted a poster of Hannah Clipp, who in 2015 was awarded both the same scholarships.
“Honestly, it was complete chance that I chose to do research,” Kuzniar said. “I think about that all the time — that my one decision just changed everything. I was so fortunate to have a program at my high school that enabled me to research so early.
“Almost every day for the past three years, I walked past that sign,” she continued. “I really looked up to her, and I think that may have been one of the first reasons I looked into those scholarships, literally because of that poster.”
An Honors College senior and environmental microbiology major in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, Kuzniar, of Morgantown, made the first step in achieving that goal last year when she was named a Udall Scholar for her work in environmental research.
“Participating in undergraduate research teaches students invaluable skills in problem solving and communicating ideas and is such an important part of the undergraduate experience,” said Michelle Richards-Babb, Goldwater campus representative and professor of chemistry. “As a fierce advocate for undergraduate research, Teagan has already shown herself to be a research leader. We’re so proud of her accomplishment in being named WVU’s newest Goldwater Scholar.”
Kuzniar spent the past three years researching in the lab of Ember Morrissey, associate professor of environmental microbiology. The laboratory specializes in quantitative stable isotope probing, a method Morrissey helped pioneer that uses heavy isotopes to track which microorganisms are the most active in soil.
“Morrissey really values independence in research,” Kuzniar said. “We have meetings, but otherwise, on the day-to-day, it’s up to me to decide where things are going, and I think giving that level of autonomy to undergraduates is really important and helps encourage a lot of learning because obviously I make a lot of mistakes, and making mistakes is the best way to learn.”
Last summer, Kuzniar participated in the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience, applying what she learned from Morrissey in an independent research project using quantitative spatial isotope probing in the Cranberry Glades Botanical Area in Hillsboro to look at the effects of climate change on microbial communities in wetlands.
In addition to conducting research in the lab, Kuzniar has presented at on- and off-campus conferences. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she had her first in-person presentation in November, 2021, at a tri-society meeting of the Soil Science Society of America, the American Society of Agronomy and the Crop Science Society of America. She has also been involved with the Mountaineer Undergraduate Research Review, WVU's student-led undergraduate research journal, first as the STEM section editor freshman year and today as editor-in-chief.
“It shows you a whole other side of research,” she said. “Doing research in a lab versus being able to write about it or really critically think about what it means — those are two incredibly different things, but they’re both important aspects of research.”
Kuzniar is passionate about the accessibility of research, a topic she is further pursuing in her Honors EXCEL project by expanding the reach of MURR statewide. She hopes by including student research from across the state in MURR, more students will realize that, regardless of their field or prior experience, they too can conduct research.
Also a Bucklew Scholar, Kuzniar plans on pursuing her Ph.D. after graduating from WVU, ultimately becoming a professor. The great mentorship she has received throughout her undergraduate experience has helped solidify her goals.
“I owe a lot to my mentors and the people who have supported me, and I really want to be involved in other people’s education and learning experiences,” Kuzniar said. “At the end of the day, I love learning, and I think that being a professor is one of the most ideal ways to pursue lifelong learning, especially as a professor within research.”
The prestigious Goldwater Scholarship is presented to students with great potential to make a significant contribution to research in their chosen field.
The Goldwater Scholarship is the nation’s most prestigious award in mathematics, the natural sciences, and engineering. It provides as much as $7,500 for tuition, fees, books, room and board. For the 2022-2023 academic year, the trustees of the Goldwater Board awarded 417 college students from across the United States.
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