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Sarah Gregory found the conversation to be stimulating, to say the least. Students talked passionately about how love affects the brain, gender construction in Milton's "Paradise Lost," rock formations in Wyoming mountains, human physiology -- and that was just around the breakfast table on a Wednesday morning.
While these subjects aren't typical conversation topics for most college students, they are just part of the daily routine for Gregory and the other students enrolled in the University of Wyoming Honors Program.
The Honors Program was a natural fit for the Gillette student who was a 2007 valedictorian at Campbell County High School. She graduated this spring with a B.S. degree in molecular biology from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and a B.S. in physiology from the College of Arts and Sciences. Gregory readily took advantage of the Honors Program that provides opportunities and experiences for academically talented and ambitious students. Those opportunities include innovative courses taught by award-winning faculty members, special scholarships and independent research, active leadership in student organizations and other experiences.
For Gregory, attending UW's Summer High School Institute (SHSI), an annual on-campus education program for high school sophomores, led to her Honors Program involvement and was a major reason she chose to attend UW.
She took courses at the SHSI that piqued her interest in medicine and exposed her to some of the faculty members who also taught in the Honors Program. Duncan Harris, a Shakespearian scholar in the Department of English, directs both the University Honors Program and SHSI. He has influenced many students to participate in the Honors Program.
Since Harris began directing the program in 1993, enrollment has doubled to 600 students. The program's growth reflects Harris' belief that students who desire to become high academic achievers should have that opportunity.
In the classroom, Honors Program students enroll in two honors classes their freshman year and one each subsequent year. Courses are taught by some of UW's top professors who are known for promoting class debate and intellectual discussions.
"It's just a wonderful learning environment, the teachers were phenomenal, they asked for feedback and promoted active discussions," Gregory says.
She cites English Professor Peter Parolin, who "made the concepts of the texts interesting and applicable to my life." She also mentioned important contributions by other faculty members, too, including English Professor Susan Aronstein, Music Professor Rod Garnett and retired Zoology and Physiology Professor Robert Kitchin. She says Garnett influenced her honors class on Bali to perform a Balinese percussion concert.
"Every single faculty member I have interacted with has been great, they are always willing to help you with whatever it is you need, both inside and outside the classroom," she says. "What stands out to me is the honors faculty members actually get to know their students on a personal level and are interested in their personal development."
The honors experience culminates in an independent senior research project that gives students an opportunity to work closely with faculty members in their chosen field. Directed by Zoology and Physiology Professor Robert Hall and graduate researcher Erin R. Hotchkiss, Gregory studied dissolved organic compounds (DOC) in Wyoming rivers.
"Our goal was to identify the role that light, microbes, and limiting nutrients play in DOC processing," she says. "Preliminary results suggest that light plays an important role in increasing microbial uptake of DOC."
She also conducted additional aquatic research as a two-time recipient of the Wyoming National Science Foundation EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive) Research Fellowship that provides research stipends to talented students in the sciences.
While the classes and research opportunities are important experiences, Gregory says the social interactions and personal friendships with both students and faculty members can't be underestimated. She had many opportunities to interact with others while serving as a resident assistant in the Honors House, a renovated facility that was once a UW fraternity building.
The house provides a place where students can feel at home in a location where they stay in touch with people in the residence halls, fraternities and sororities. Harris says, "It provides the opportunity for students from many different majors to create a community of academic achievement and social responsibility." Gregory was impressed that it also provides an environment where students engage in intellectual discussions and debates at anytime of the day or night.
Most of the students in the program mirror Gregory's enthusiasm for the Honors Program. In the latest UW Student Opinion Survey, one of three surveys conducted biennially by the university since 1994 to gauge student satisfaction, students expressed a 72-percent satisfaction with the Honors program, a near all-time high.
Gregory plans to take a year off from school to "shadow" one or more medical doctors to verify if a career in medicine is really for her.
"It's an important thing for me to do," she says. "I don't want to invest several years of work and money into graduate education and realize it's not what I actually want to do."