“I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do for research or anything, but I knew I wanted to work in Maurine’s lab. The people here are awesome,” says Sullivan.

Ask a child to describe the ideal vacation activity, and several responses—from swimming to sandcastles—are likely. But for Michelle Sullivan, the fun wasn’t to be found splashing in the waves or basking in the sun.

“When we went on vacation as kids, my sister wanted to go to the beach,” says Sullivan. “I wanted to go on the educational boat tour.”

Sullivan’s journey from wide-eyed young tourist to senior honors biology major at the University of Iowa has been every bit as rich in learning experiences—and as full of interesting stops—as those boat tours on vacation.

In addition to a major in biology, Sullivan, of Urbandale, Iowa, will complete a minor in dance when she graduates from the UI in the spring of 2014. She also works as a yoga instructor, including at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics for a cancer survivors group.

Responsible for her own college expenses, Sullivan’s jobs—which also include work at the UI Museum of Natural History, and as a tour guide for prospective UI students and their families through the admissions office—have helped offset the expense of pursuing her degree. And although she enjoys her work, she knows it takes her away from the lab time her research requires.

In the spring of 2013, the burden of balancing jobs and research was lightened when Sullivan received a John and Elsie Mae Ferentz Undergraduate Fellowship for Research, which allowed her to cut back on work and devote more time to the lab.

Sullivan also currently receives financial support from the Alexander Kern Liberal Arts and Sciences Scholarship, and previous scholarship support has helped her throughout her time at Iowa. Aside from wanting to pursue an advanced degree upon graduation, Sullivan isn’t sure where her road may lead her. She’s fine with that, though, and she embraces the uncertainty.

In fact, it was that same open-mindedness that led her to the field of biology in the first place. Sullivan entered the UI with plans to major in mathematics. But an honors project in biological mathematical modeling in the first semester of her freshman year changed her mind.

After switching her major and settling into the honors biology program, Sullivan met UI Assistant Professor of Biology Maurine Neiman. And while she had yet to decide on her specific research interest, she was sure she wanted to work with Neiman.

“I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do for research or anything, but I knew I wanted to work in Maurine’s lab. The people here are awesome,” says Sullivan.

Among the things Sullivan has learned from researching under Neiman is the importance of becoming a public scientist.

“We need smart people of all kinds to be scientists,” says Neiman. “We have a role as scientists to communicate to the public why what we’re doing is important, and people like Michelle can go out and be advocates for our work.”

To summarize Sullivan’s research—evaluating the mutational hypotheses for persistence of sex in sexual/asexual systems by studying a freshwater snail native to New Zealand lakes and streams—is to understand the importance of helping the public understand it. With parents who are social workers and a sister who is majoring in vocal performance, Sullivan finds ways to practice communicating her work—or “bridging the sciences and humanities,” as she describes it—in a way that public science demands. And she knows doing so is the best way she can think of to thank the UI contributors responsible for the private support she’s received at the UI.

“Donors’ generosity is my motivation to suck every minute out of my UI experience that I can,” she says. “It inspires me to take my education, turn it around, and give it back to the community.”