COLLEGE STATION — Overcoming adversity by Rachel Wright, a Ph.D. student in Texas A&M University’s genetics program, has earned her recognition as one of this year’s Aggie Spirit Award winners.
The award, which is sponsored by the university’s faculty senate, seeks to honor students who have overcome adversity — academic or otherwise. What makes the Aggie Spirit Award unique is that senate members literally pass the hat to fund the accolade. Professors serving in the senate watch firsthand as students overcome life’s obstacles to succeed in the classroom, and they have dipped into their personal pocketbooks since 2001 to provide a small stipend to go along with their big-time admiration of students like Wright.
To understand Wright’s perseverance and why the Ph.D. she is set to receive in August will symbolize so much, it is important to backtrack more than five years ago — straight to the beginning.
Prior to her graduation from Texas A&M in 2006, the Fort Lauderdale, Fla. native began working part-time as a research assistant with Don Hong, a professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine. After she earned her degree in genetics, she transitioned into a full-time assistant and eventually returned to graduate school to pursue her Ph.D. in genetics in 2008. Wright continued working with Hong as a graduate student — after all, she was already monitoring multiple projects in the professor’s lab. The duo’s research focused on inherited retinal degeneration and specifically on a disease called retinitis pigmentosa type III that causes death of a person’s photoreceptor cells, which are responsible for vision.
However, in the summer months of 2009, Hong was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer. He began a vigorous course of treatment which forced him out of the lab. During one of Wright’s committee meetings in October where members debated how Wright should proceed in the absence of her principal investigator, Hong suffered multiple strokes and lost his ability to speak.
The committee ultimately decided to allow Wright to continue with the pair’s projects.
“I was the only student in the lab,” Wright explained. “If I couldn’t finish the projects, the data wouldn’t get published.”
Hong lost his battle with cancer on Christmas Eve 2009. Wright continued working on her own, under the direction of Michael Criscitiello, assistant professor in the department of veterinary pathobiology, and Brian Perkins, associate professor in the department of biology and one of the only retinol biologists on campus.
In May 2010, Wright received another blow. Her father was diagnosed with melanoma and soon began intense rounds of treatments at M.D. Anderson in Houston, an echo of those her mentor Don Hong endured during the last months of his life. After only two weeks of making the trips to Houston with her father, Wright learned that she and her husband Cliff were expecting their first child.
“(Rachel) was now balancing time between running a lab, writing manuscripts, driving to M.D. Anderson 3-4 times a week and adjusting to the changes associated with pregnancy,” wrote Perkins in his nomination letter to the senate. “None of this affected her productivity or her positive outlook.”
Wright managed to write her thesis, as well as two other academic papers, to complete the requirements of her Ph.D. program. She is also currently collaborating on a third paper with the National Eye Institute. Her father is also doing well with his treatment, and she recently gave birth to a daughter.
“I don’t know if I ever thought of my situation as being that much of facing adversity,” she said. “I always knew that there could be something worse, so receiving this award was quite an honor.”
But Perkins’ letter to the senate made it immediately clear that Wright’s ability to navigate these challenges was nothing short of impressive, as he penned, “The bottom line is that Rachel is one of the most mature, independent and motivated students I have witnessed at Texas A&M and very deserving of this award.”
The Faculty Senate agreed.