UM grad shows importance of bonds between student and teacher - KPAX.com | Continuous News | Missoula & Western Montana

UM grad shows importance of bonds between student and teacher

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It’s graduation season in Montana and more than 3,000 University of Montana students are straightening their caps and putting on their gowns in preparation for the occasion. 

Undoubtedly for many members of the class of 2016, the ceremony will symbolize the first steps into adulthood.  But for every lecture, essay and test these students endured, there was a professor leading the way -- and for one UM student, the journey to graduation was made possible through the encouragement of one professor.

Sarah Solie's story is like something out of a movie.  A chance encounter with a University of Montana professor coupled with her blossoming love of science led to what she calls one of the most important friendships of her life.  Over the past four years, her interest in science evolved into a deep knowledge and a hunger for more.  And she says she owes it all to the opportunity given to her by one teacher.

"She's an interesting student in many ways,” said UM professor of biology Doug Emlen, “So, she didn't come at this in a traditional biology major, she actually has another undergraduate education from a different institution in, like..."

"International relations from Mount Holyoak College,” Solie finished, “When I came to Montana, I began working at Cafe Dolce, and Doug has been coming there for a number of years."

That’s actually where he and Solie first met, said Emlen, "And we talked a bunch about her interest in biology."

Solie called the café Emlen’s secret workplace.  He called it his office away from his office.  But no matter what they call it, they quickly got to know each other, bonding over a mutual love of biology.

"And when I got involved here, I recognized him on the faculty profiles, and I kind of just up-front asked him, do you have any space for me?” Solie laughed, “And he was really generous and kind about bringing me in as kind of a naive scientist.  He took me under his wing.  When I started I was reading limb patterning pathway papers and I didn't understand a word of them!"

Despite a lack of understanding, Emlen saw potential in Solie.

"She hadn't had any developmental biology, she hadn't had any evolutionary biology, any animal behavior.  She didn't know any of the things that were relevant to what we were doing.  But she learned with blinding speed,” he remarked of Solie’s dedication to study, “Very quickly it became clear that she wanted to do much more intense research, and so we were able to send her to Japan."

Solie said that Japan trip put her international relations degree to good use.  She spent several weeks working with a UM doctoral student, "And we were measuring the hind-leg weapons in Sagra femorata, it is a beetle with these really exaggerated hind limbs,” Solie clarified.

Solie said her four years working with Emlen in the lab led her to graduate school. "And so she applied to and interviewed at four graduate school Ph.D. programs, was accepted at all four of them and has chosen to begin a Ph.D. this fall at Duke University," Emlen said with a proud smile.

While Solie said all four schools offered incredible possibilities, she decided on Duke for both the freedom of research she will be afforded there and for the environment in which she will continue to learn, "The academic environment at Duke was remarkable,” she explained, “It was a real scientific community, and it just seemed like the kind of place where people were walking through the halls talking science with each other and that really sang to me."

Of course, Solie doesn’t spend all day looking at insects and categorizing the iridescence of exoskeletons, "She's also a musician, so in all her spare time, right?” laughed Emlen, “She plays the cello in the Missoula Symphony."

"It's just nice to remind yourself that there are other things that you do outside of academia," Solie smiled.

"I come from a family of musicians, so there was no escaping it, but it has been really instru-instrumental,” Chuckled Solie at the unintentional pun, “In providing me an outlet that's not academia or work, it's like an artistic outlet for me.  The Emlen Lab has been instrumental in everything that I've accomplished here.  For me, it really solidified the fact that this is what I wanted to do with the rest of my life."

Solie will begin research at Duke University in late August, but until then she is continuing work at the University of Montana.  She is currently working with the physics department on a device to accurately pinpoint how exactly certain insects iridesce.

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