French House Focus: Shelby Pursley
LSU Honors College senior Shelby Pursley is a great example of something we say often around the Honors College: Honors students are everywhere. Our Honors community is comprised of LSU students from all walks of campus. They are athletes. They are involved in Greek life. They’re STEM majors, they’re creative writing majors. What they have in common is their scholarship, their leadership—and Honors.
Shelby’s not just anyone, of course. She majors in Biological Engineering with a minor in Chemistry. She’s president of the Engineering Council and a member of Pi Beta Phi sorority. She’s writing a thesis on microfluidics and cell cryoprotectants. She’s even squeezed a little Division I volleyball into her schedule. Hear her LSU Honors story below.
Tell us a little bit about yourself—where you’re from, how you ended up at LSU…
I’m from Winter Springs, Florida, which is a suburb of Orlando. Grew up an only child. Went to public school. I was always really involved in sports, especially volleyball. I actually came to LSU because I was recruited to play on a volleyball scholarship here. So that’s how I originally heard of LSU, came to LSU, fell in love with LSU.
Did you apply to LSU knowing you wanted to go to the Honors College?
I applied to LSU knowing that I was going to be here, because I had committed to play volleyball. So it was a weird scenario. I didn’t really know what I was going to do after graduation, but I knew that I was going to travel well outside of the high-density Tiger network. I’m coming from out of state and assuming I would be out of state afterward—[being in the Honors College] just carries a little more weight. It’s a different education listing on your resume. So I definitely didn’t want to miss out on that. I wanted to be sure that I was getting the best education possible.
Were there any particular obstacles or challenges you had to overcome in getting to LSU, or during your time here?
I played two years on the volleyball team. I’m a Biological Engineering major. Being in Biological Engineering, doing research on campus, being on the team—got to be a little much. So I decided to focus on school over sports.
Was there one thing that made you make that decision? Like an event, or was it just kind of the whole combination?
So my freshman fall and season—loved it, loved it, loved it. Freshman spring is when things [in volleyball] get really intense, really quickly. I was taking 17 credit hours at the time and we had 5 AM practice. I fell behind in volleyball, fell behind in school, worked to catch up. I was kind of doing okay and then I got in a car accident my sophomore year, got a concussion, was out for two weeks. It totaled my car, and the airbag didn’t go off. And I just fell even further behind. So at that point it was like, you can catch up to earn your spot on the floor for volleyball, or you can just really get yourself together for school and focus on that. So I guess that would be pivotal—sort of the pivotal point to go from nerdy jock, to full-on nerd.
What kind of research do you do?
I first started in Dr. Nandakumar’s lab in the Chemical Engineering Department, and I was paired with them through CFLR [the Chancellor’s Future Leaders in Research Program]. That was doing computational fluid dynamics, and I was paired with a PhD candidate who was working on microfluidics. Fast-forward to sophomore year: I meet Dr. Todd Monroe [Associate Professor of Biological and Agricultural Engineering], who has a lab working in microfluidics. So from that I’ve mostly been working on microfluidic projects, both in simulation and in wet-lab, traditional, hands-on research.
What are microfluidics?
Microfluidics deals with reactions and fluid systems at the micro scale. It’s the technology that takes, for example, blood glucose testing from a lab test that takes two weeks, to a handheld monitor for diabetics. It’s the idea of taking those tests and those things you would do in a lab, and moving them down to a microchip.
What are you writing a thesis on, specifically?
The project came from cell activation work that’s been done on chip in Dr. Monroe’s lab. We work a lot with the cryopreservation of zebrafish sperm cells. Zebrafish are used a lot in biomedical research as a model. In order to catalogue genetic strains we want to be able to freeze the gametes. It’s an operator-dependent process and it’s very slow. If we could do it fast and reproducibly on a microchip, that would be great. So my thesis is looking at loading a cryoprotectant—which is going to protect the cell during freezing—into cells in a microchannel environment for freezing. We can have much better control and make it automated in a microfluidic device.
Are you going to pursue the same kind of research in graduate school?
I’m applying to bioengineering programs, and I’ve gotten into a few—
I heard you were recently admitted to MIT.
Yes! And it’s difficult to even wrap my mind around that.
I’m really interested in microfluidics and nanotechnology for engineering world health and smart medicine. I’ve also applied to interview with several people in tissue engineering. I want to be able to take these technologies that are so cool and take them to the real world—out of the lab, into industry, into the public sector.
I think being recruited—they say everything happens for a reason—I think that going through the recruiting process for sports has so well-equipped me for this moment. And I think going through the process of when I left volleyball—we’re talking my tuition [no longer] being paid—I had to find new sources of everything, a new network, new money, and that made me really feel like I can adapt.
Do you feel that what the Honors College has offered you, in terms of network and resources and development, has prepared you for the grad school application process—or for anything else?
Oh, my goodness, yes. I would have been very, very overwhelmed—to the point of being crippled, not hitting submit. Handling nine different top-twenty applications, along with three other fellowship applications—to have the fellowship advising [the Honors College Office of Fellowship Advising] here has been literally invaluable.
Additionally I would say that the faculty you come in contact with that you wouldn’t have otherwise has been really huge for me. For example, I never really thought I was that great at chemistry, and then I took Dr. Kevin Smith’s Honors Chemistry class. Loved it, everything clicked, I wound up tutoring in chem, minoring in chem, and chem is what’s gotten me into grad school, because so much of biological engineering is chem. This was the semester that I got in the car accident. So you’re talking two weeks of missed lecture and a missed test for Honors Organic Chem. I mean how do you even recover from that? But he was so helpful—he just wrote me a new test, had me do it, gave me extra time because I was not all there yet.
Were there any things that surprised you about the Honors College—that you weren’t expecting when you started here?
I wasn’t expecting there to be such a wide offering of programs. You can come and hear great music here. Or you can hear a really great speaker. Or participate in the Honors Shared Read. I wouldn’t have had that sort of experience if I hadn’t taken Honors courses. It’s been a more well-rounded experience.
What advice would you give to a student who is considering the Honors College, or to an Honors freshman?
I think I would tell them to put yourself out there and take risks as early and as often as you can. This past summer I decided to apply for an REU [Research Experience for Undergraduates] at a different institution instead of working at LSU. I didn’t take that risk until kind of late and I really went for it. Wound up getting an internship at Georgia Tech—which eventually got me the experience and recommendation that helped me get into top programs for grad school. So I feel like the earlier you can just get over yourself, and put yourself out there and take a risk, the more it’s going to pay off later.
Know a student who should be featured in French House Focus? Please send nominations to Liz Billet at firstname.lastname@example.org.