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From first-generation college student to scientific researcher: Toward leading by example

Hannah Oakes

When Hannah Oakes first came to ETSU, she already had nearly 100 credit hours – and three associate’s degrees – under her belt. Born and raised in Bristol, Oakes graduated from Sullivan Central High School in 2010 and became the first in her family to attend college when she enrolled at Northeast State Community College that same year.

“I decided to go to college because I knew I didn’t want to struggle like my parents did to make ends meet,” Oakes says. “Initially, I was unable to afford anything beyond community college so that is where I started.”

Oakes spent three years at Northeast State, graduating in 2013 with three associate’s degrees in five different concentrations – mathematics, physics, chemistry, pre-engineering general and pre-engineering chemical.

From there, she transferred to ETSU and double majored in biology-biochemistry and chemistry as an undergraduate at the university.

Thanks to all of the credit hours she already had accumulated, it took Oakes just 18 months at ETSU to earn her bachelor’s degree. During that time, Oakes took an interest in conducting research, and ultimately, earned first place in the undergraduate division of ETSU’s Appalachian Student Research Forum in 2014.

Research remains a key focus for Oakes on her educational journey at ETSU, a path that currently has her working toward a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences with a concentration in pharmaceutical sciences.

“I love research because it is just so fascinating to learn something new,” Oakes said. “You get to be the first one to know something that nobody else knows. Right at that moment, when you analyze your data, you are the only one to know what it shows – and then you get to share it with others, which is great, too.”

Oakes earned another Appalachian Student Research Forum first place honor in 2016, this time for her poster presentation on the effects of abusing methylphenidate, the drug commonly known as Ritalin.

Most recently, she became the recipient of the American Foundation for Pharmaceutical Education Pre-Doctoral Research Fellowship, a highly competitive national fellowship that includes $10,000 per year to be used toward research and educational costs.

The money will go a long way in helping her further her current research related to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and methylphenidate, which is most commonly prescribed for the treatment of ADHD.

Oakes hopes to graduate with her Ph.D. in 2019 and looks forward to the moment at commencement when ETSU President Brian Noland asks all first-generation graduates to stand and be recognized for their achievements.

“College as a first-generation student is tough, but it has been worth it,” she says. “I’ve grown a lot as a person since coming to ETSU. I have learned how to be a professional, and I didn’t really have an example of that in my life before coming to college.”

After earning her Ph.D. Oakes hopes to serve as that example for others.

“I would love to stay in this area and become a professor so I can pass on all I have learned to future generations of scientists and students,” she says.

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