Class of 2020: Biochemistry and biology major encourages students to gain experience while finding their own way
Astrid Meenan has advice for new Virginia Tech students.
“Keep an open mind to opportunities. Don’t automatically think it’s not for you or that just ‘other people do that.’ Virginia Tech opened so many opportunities for me.”
Now completing her senior year, Meenan, from Springfield, Virginia, looks forward to a career as a physician made possible by the opportunities she has pursued over the last few years.
Meenan's early interests in science eventually led her to Virginia Tech as a pre-veterinary student. “My earliest memory of loving science is before kindergarten when I would choose shows on Animal Planet involving science and animals over cartoons,” she said. However, she soon decided on a broader undergraduate program of study with majors in biochemistry and biology and minors in chemistry and Spanish.
As a freshman, Meenan found a sense of community living in the Orion Living-Learning Community (LLC) for students in the sciences. She recounts late nights working with other science students on chemistry homework and spending warm days gathering in study groups on the Drillfield.
“Finding your community is essential to being successful at Virginia Tech,” said Meenan. "Examine your crowd and see if it aligns with your goals so that you spend your time wisely.”
Her own experiences within the Orion LLC helped Meenan develop a profound love for mentoring students, and she eventually became a “super mentor” (a mentor to other mentors in Orion). These experiences at Orion also inspired Meenan to apply as a mentor to underrepresented high school students participating in a summer program sponsored by the University of Georgetown School of Medicine’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion. Meenan was part of a team who designed classes, took students to shadow physicians, and supported them in presenting their research projects.
Some of the most memorable moments she recalls from the summer mentorship program aren’t even those that involve her directly, but rather the moments where she could see the immediate impact of the program on the students participating in it.
“While shadowing with a physician, a minority patient looked at the two high school students and asked their doctor if ‘those doctors’ could perform their surgery. I could see the look of immense pride on the students’ faces to be mistaken for physicians and know that someone else could see them in that way,” said Meenan.
End-of-program surveys would highlight what Meenan observed firsthand. Originally, only half of the students planned to attend college. After the program, however, all of the students said they could see themselves in college.
Always following her own advice to explore opportunities, Meenan later approached the head of biochemistry and asked if it would be possible to work in her lab while still an undergraduate. Professor Glenda Gillaspy directed her to apply for a Fralin Undergraduate Research Fellowship and invited Meenan to work on a research project underway in the lab.
Meenan was part of a team who studied a mutated gene that was thought to be part of a very important pathway in plants that processes inositol phosphate. She conducted research to understand the phenotype and brainstormed ways that could explain its role in the pathway. As part of the fellowship, Meenan presented her research findings at the Dennis Dean Undergraduate Research Symposium that is held on campus each spring.
Meenan’s eagerness to learn and passion for supporting underrepresented students in science fields made her a natural choice to represent the biochemistry department as a student fellow for the Inclusive Excellence program. Sponsored by a $1 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and administered by the Office of Undergraduate Education within the division of Undergraduate Academic Affairs, the program works with Virginia Tech science departments to advance inclusive teaching practices. As a fellow, Meenan supported these efforts by participating in focus groups, sharing ideas with fellows from other majors, and creating profiles of successful scientists from underrepresented groups to inspire students in these science programs.
“It has been my pleasure to work with Astrid Meenan the past few years. Her spirit, work ethic, and dedication to helping others are outstanding," Gillaspy said. "I don’t want to spend time listing all of the important service events she has volunteered to help with, because the list is long. The most impactful for the Department of Biochemistry has been her willingness to serve as our HHMI intern, where her insight and thoughtfulness and creativity have helped us increase opportunities for many of our students. It is not uncommon to hear faculty mention her by name and inquire as to whether she can help with something or provide a valued student perspective on something. I feel enriched to have worked with such a talented and optimistic young scientist.”
Another of Meenan’s many accomplishments includes being a teaching assistant (TA) for biochemistry. Upon reflecting on his selection of Meenan to be a TA in his class, Richard Helm, associate professor for biochemistry, said, “I found her to be inquisitive and one of the happiest and most cheerful people I ever met. Astrid did a wonderful job managing what needed to get done; always conscientious and always with enthusiasm and a smile.”
Meenan also branched out, pursuing additional opportunities beyond Virginia Tech that would help prepare her for her future career as a physician, including working as an EMT for the Blacksburg Rescue Squad. “Living in Blacksburg can feel like a bubble. You don’t have to travel far to find people living in very challenging circumstances. It was good [for me] to grow beyond the comfort of campus in that way.”
In addition, Meenan also served as the volunteer coordinator for the Foundation of International Medical Relief for Children (FIMRC), worked as the undergraduate for communications in the Department of Biochemistry, and traveled to Uruguay to shadow physicians and enhance her Spanish speaking skills.
Chevon Thorpe, assistant professor in biochemistry and director of inclusion and diversity for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, described Meenan as “the true embodiment of our Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) motto both inside and outside of the classroom."
Thorpe added, “Highly respected among her peers and faculty, she possesses all of the qualities of an exemplary person and Hokie: a bright mind, integrity, altruism, a strong work ethic, and a love of learning. I take great pride in being a part of her journey here at Virginia Tech.”
“Talking and getting to know professors by visiting them during office hours is very high on my list of memorable experiences. Professors at Virginia Tech want to engage with students in this way. It is so motivating and I learned there is no ‘standard’ dictating when and how someone should enter every chapter of life,” Meenan said about her time at Virginia Tech.
For Meenan, one thing is clear: looking for new opportunities and trying them out one step at a time defined her Virginia Tech experience. “No matter where I go, I will forever be a Hokie,” she said.