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Dr. Ermelinda Harper:  Oh, the places one can go with a degree in Biochemistry

Ermelinda Harper as a studentErmelinda Harper is a 1998 graduate of EMU with a professional biochemistry degree.  As a student, she received numerous honors.  Among them, she

  • was awarded Third Team status in USA TODAY's All USA College Academic Team.  At the time, she was the only EMU student to have received this honor.
  • was named a Barry Goldwater Scholar.  The purpose of the Foundation is to provide a continuing source of highly qualified scientists, mathematicians, and engineers by awarding scholarships to college students who intend to pursue research careers in these fields
  • received the 1998 Bert W. Peet Award winner.  This award goes to top graduating EMU Chemistry/Biochemistry major.
  • was the student emcee at the 1998 Undergraduate Symposium.  She was the third student ever selected for this position.

Below, in her own words, Dr. Harper tells the story of her academic and professional career.

I changed majors at least a dozen times in my first year of undergraduate! I finally selected a major that stuck and decided upon a pre-medical track. Everything was finally set, and then in walked Dr. Elva Nicholson and organic chemistry.

At the time, I did not have a lot of confidence in my academic abilities. This – combined with the horror stories I had heard about organic chemistry – had me literally shaking in my shoes. For the entire semester, I thought about almost nothing but organic chemistry. When the semester ended, I found myself actually looking forward to the next organic chemistry class in the sequence. I was shocked and flattered when Dr. Nicholson began asking questions about my educational and career goals.

Over the next year, I found myself thinking about chemistry a lot, and more and more chemistry classes crept into my schedule. This coincided with my spending more time in the laboratory of a chemistry professor, Dr. Michael Brabec, who I still regard as my most important mentor. Spending the summer at Eastern Michigan University working with Dr. Brabec in a National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates position “sealed the deal”, and I changed my major one more time: to professional biochemistry.

After being graduated from Eastern Michigan University, I lived in Beijing, China, teaching for a year and then working at an environmental consultancy for another year. During this time, I saw firsthand the environmental challenges and degradation that developing countries face. The encouragement that I received in science – combined with my  experience in China – ultimately coalesced into my decision to pursue graduate studies with an environmental focus.

Ermelinda HarperI was graduated with a master of science degree in civil engineering from Northwestern University. With the support of a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, I pursued further graduate work at Yale University. At Yale, I completed two master’s degrees along the way to my PhD in engineering and applied science. As a doctoral student, I studied the element tungsten, determining quantitative estimates for how the United States has used it and traded it, in all of its forms, for a 25-year period, and the ultimate fate of the products that remained in the United States (i.e., estimates of how much was recycled versus discarded in landfills). The results illuminated how the United States uses tungsten, and what recycling potentials might exist.

My work as a research scientist at Yale University shifted to studying metals use, recycling, and resources. This work has become increasingly important in light of emerging technologies (e.g., solar panels and smart phones) that employ metals whose supply may be uncertain, and it has received wide attention from academia, industry, and the general public. So far, I have co-authored 16 peer-reviewed publications throughout my education and career.

The guidance and support so generously, continuously, and graciously given by extremely talented Chemistry Department faculty members was invaluable and, quite honestly, the best I ever received. The didactic and laboratory training at Eastern was rigorous, comprehensive, and inspiring. I firmly attribute every success that I have had to the mentorship that I received at Eastern Michigan University, both as a member of the Honors Program and as a chemistry student. My decision to change my major one last time was one of the best decisions I ever made.

- Posted 1/05/16

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