By Tiffany Whitfield

Mary Olson will graduate from Old Dominion University having fulfilled her college bucket list - zero dollars in student debt and trained to be an avid researcher.

Olson is a first-generation student with a double major in chemistry and biochemistry. She has been heavily involved in research, presented at national conferences and was even a teaching assistant as an undergraduate.

Olson chose chemistry and biochemistry because she loves challenges and "the STEM field would be a wonderful career choice."

Olson was homeschooled, then attended Tidewater Community College in Virginia Beach and received her associate degree in science. She then transferred to ODU.

"I researched many schools and saw that ODU had excellent scholarship options, as well as solid STEM programs with a large emphasis on undergraduate research," Olson said."It was a good call, and I didn't have any trouble academically when I transferred."

Olson received the Clark Undergraduate Scholarship in Chemistry, Academic Honors Scholarship and Landmark Opportunities Scholarship.

Just as at TCC, Olson was a commuter student at ODU, making the daily 45-minute drive from Suffolk to Norfolk.

"I had many 15-hour days," Olson said. "I would leave home before sunrise and get home after dark more often than not."

Nonetheless, she will graduate with a 3.9 GPA.

"Mary has been a truly exceptional undergraduate researcher in my lab for the past two years," said GuijunWang, professor in chemistry and biochemistry and research advisor. "She is highly talented, creative, diligent and well organized. She has made important contributions to research projects and will be a co-author on at least two peer-reviewed publications, besides presenting at national ACS (American Chemical Society) conferences."

Olson's research involved designing new carbohydrate-based low molecular weight gelators that can potentially be used as novel drug delivery systems.

Research and working in the lab were must-haves to Olson.

"I was also going to present again at the national American Chemical meeting this spring on my other project, titled 'Design, Synthesis, and Characterization of pH Sensitive Hydrogelators,'" Olson said. "However, the conference was postponed due to COVID."

COVID-19 also disrupted Olson's final semester and labs.

"It had the largest impact on my research, as I could no longer work in the Wang lab and complete my projects," she said.

Chemistry and biochemistry professors adapted to online-learning and set up virtual group meetings. "I have even FaceTimed the graduate students in the lab to help complete experiments," Olson said.

Virtual learning and graduating during a pandemic "has been challenging, but the professors have really risen to the occasion to make it work and have been diligent about staying in close contact," Olson. said. "They have also been understanding about the new stressful situations we are in as well.

"The professors that have had the greatest impact are Dr. Wang, my research advisor, and Dr. Craig Bayse and Dr. John Cooper, who have both been incredible mentors and taken so much time to listen to me and give incredible advice."

The most difficult part about graduating during the pandemic?

"Not being able to say goodbye to my chemistry comrades," she said. "I would give anything to hug them one more time before we scatter off across the country."

The next chapter of Olson's life involves heading off to graduate school to pursue a Ph.D. in organic chemistry at Virginia Tech and focus on methodology and medicinal chemistry.

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