Class of 1989
Published on AllBusiness.com
Sep. 23--Rhonda Walker's future in conducting research for biofuel started in her flower garden.
The single mother was working with her plants while she explained to her teenage son and his friend why she was placing different plants in different locations.
"My son's friend looked at me and said, 'You should teach this stuff,' " Walker said. "And I decided I wanted to teach plant science at the college level."
Walker had just recently lost her job and kept hearing "must have degree" throughout her job search. When she learned she was accepted to Western Kentucky University, she immediately enrolled in the agriculture department.
Three years later, she was not only selected as one of two recipients of the 2009 outstanding senior award for the agriculture department, she was also chosen for a prestigious internship at the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in Ardmore, Okla.
In February, Walker found out she was one of five scholars chosen for the research institute, among students from Princeton University, New York University, Purdue University and the College of William and Mary.
"It worried me to see a student from Princeton because I'm from Kentucky. I'm not Ivy League," Walker said. "But when we got there, we found that we really complemented each other."
From May 29 to Aug. 7, Walker spent her first summer away from her son, 16-year-old Chaz Cobb. During that time, she isolated and characterized three genes that may be linked to lignin biosynthesis. Essentially, some of the discoveries can be used down the road to produce biofuel, Walker said.
Under Dr. Chunxiang Fu and coordinator Zen-Yu Wang, Walker isolated and characterized a gene that had never been done before. Her work will be featured in a publication by the researchers.
"The only thing I knew was I wanted to teach plant science at the college level. I had no idea I would spend one summer learning so much and doing things that had never been done before," Walker said. "It's exciting, and I'm honored they chose me and that I am able to say I took part in something like that."
The summer internship provided the chosen scholars with an apartment, salary, company car and "the best opportunity I've ever had," Walker said.
In December, the mom will have completed her degree in agronomy in four years, all while running an online graphics business, tutoring students at South Campus and working as a teaching assistant and leading classes in University Experience and the statistics lab for agriculture students. Walker said it's because of her family, friends and faculty, particularly Linda Gonzales, professor of agriculture at WKU, that she was able to accomplish so much while still raising her son.
"I think I'm showing him that you don't give up on your dreams and that you push further at all costs," Walker said. "I won't quit -- first, I don't want to, but second, it's too important to my and his future."
Walker plans to continue her education by enrolling in the master's program at WKU and studying agronomy. She plans to conduct research on the possible methods of reintroducing or reproducing an endangered species of plants with agronomics.
"I think I'm more prepared for research than I could have ever dreamed," Walker said. "I learned more in the lab this summer than in a classroom during a whole semester. I plan to use that experience from research to do my own research for graduate school."
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