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Taking initiative brings new opportunities for Myers Park senior

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When Meredith Nelson heard that the renowned scientist Joseph DeSimone was giving a presentation on nanotechnology last January, she knew she wanted to go.

But Nelson, then a junior at Myers Park High, knew she’d need a ride: DeSimone was presenting where he works in Chapel Hill as director of the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise. (He’s also a Chancellor’s Eminent Professor of Chemistry at UNC and a William R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering at N.C. State University.)

Meredith’s determination would change the course of her summer.

Her dad drove her to Chapel Hill for what she said was a short presentation. “It was worth it, it was so cool,” she recalls.

Meredith didn’t stop there. She got in touch with DeSimone via email, read his work and learned about his research. Then he offered her an internship in his Chapel Hill lab this summer.

Meredith lived in Durham at the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics and loved her work. She reported directly to an M.D./Ph.D student, James Byrne, and created and tested iontophoretic devices: She filled the microscopic devices with a cancer-fighting drug and tested their success by implanting them into pancreatic tumors.

“There were so many different projects and innovative ideas going on in the lab – it was fantastic,” she said.

Meredith learned research isn’t easy.

“It’s hours upon hours a day, with many failures. You just learn to persevere and keep working,” she said.

She had to present her work and write weekly reports. Meredith contributed a review article to the research project’s final report, which, if accepted, will be published next year, Byrne said.

He’d never worked with a high school student before, but Byrne said her youth didn’t matter.

“She is phenomenal,” he said. “She is the most impressive high school student I’ve ever met.”

Meredith was just as, if not more, motivated to work and make progress than other M.D./Ph.D. students in the lab, Byrne said.

Two of her science teachers at Myers Park said that doesn’t surprise them.

“She’s enthusiastic about everything. She is really a motivated young lady, and caring young lady on top of that,” said Scott Shoaf, her physics teacher.

Shoaf said he was struck by her kindness and intelligence two years ago when she was waiting for a ride home where some students were in a peer-tutoring session. Before long, several upperclassmen were getting science help from her.

“They were drawn to her and I was just awed the way she taught them,” Shoaf said.

Her chemistry teacher, Noyes Harrigan, said he has a folder brimming with science articles Meredith has brought him on a near-daily basis for the past few years.

“She really has a strong hunger for science-related knowledge,” he said. “She doesn’t get scared of reading science articles she doesn’t understand – she’ll just figure it out.”

Meredith was a Science Olympiad state champion last year, and is a math team member and president of Myers Park’s physics club.

In addition to a zeal for science, Meredith is on the golf team and plays piano and violin in the Charlotte Symphony Youth Orchestra. She also worked to raise money to have a full-time Communities in Schools representative at Myers Park this year.

Meredith said this summer’s internship confirmed her desire to study science in college, and she’d love to someday integrate chemical engineering and biology to create more cutting-edge science like DeSimone’s nanotechnology work.

She said she wants to encourage other students not to be afraid to get involved in their interests.

“It doesn’t have to be for science – even the humanities, art – just put yourself out there,” she said. “You really have to have passion and you have to want to learn.”

Ruebens: 704-358-5294; Twitter: @lruebens
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