Michelle A. Zabat: 2014 National Merit Macy’s, Inc. Scholarship

Portrait of Michelle A. Zabat

Q. Tell us the college you attended, the degree(s) you earned, and your major(s).

A. I attended Brown University as part of the Class of 2018 and graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in Health & Human Biology (with a focus on Food Studies).

Q. Please describe in detail any internships, co‐ops, or study abroad programs that enriched your college experience. How have these opportunities affected you and your career plans?

A. I began work as an undergraduate researcher during the spring semester of my freshman year, in Brown’s Department of Molecular Microbiology & Immunology as part of the Belenky Lab. Since then, I spent each subsequent semester and all of my undergraduate summers learning alongside Prof. Belenky and his graduate students. The mentorship and experience I received in this role was critical to my growth as a student, both in improving my academic ability and in building my confidence as a woman in the sciences. With each passing year in the lab, I would gain a little bit more independence, going from working under a graduate student, to working alongside them, and finally to leading my own independent research project, which ultimately became the focus of my senior honors thesis work. That work is now guiding my first few years post‐graduation. I was very fortunate to work under the mentorship and supervision of a faculty member who gave me the freedom and the support to pursue all of my interests, both academic and otherwise. Prof. Belenky’s lab focuses on microbiology and its relevance to human health, and throughout my first few years working with him, I had the opportunity to conduct research relating to antibiotic resistance and the human gut microbiome. However, Prof. Belenky also knew that I had a preexisting interest in food studies and food science, and as I approached my senior year, he encouraged me to incorporate this interest into my honors thesis project. Ultimately, I was able to use the techniques and the knowledge from my previous experience with human microbiome research to design a food microbiology project that I was‐‐and am!‐‐incredibly passionate about. The study profiled the previously uncharacterized community dynamics of kimchi and sauerkraut throughout the fermentation processes that produce them. Fermented foods have become exceedingly popular in recent years, largely due to the popularization of “probiotics” in the mass consumer market. However, the purported functionality of probiotics, which is widely claimed by the manufacturers and producers that distribute these products, has little scientific backing. These interactions allowed me to examine food from a multitude of different lenses in my thesis, truly encapsulating the love I have for both biology and food. Ultimately, I published two first‐authored papers about the fermented foods study in Food Microbiology and Foods, and I received Brown’s Distinguished Senior Thesis Prize for the associated honors thesis. After graduation, I am continuing my inquiry into fermented foods with the support of the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, which is sponsoring a year of research at University of the Philippines Los Baños. I will be working specifically with traditional Filipino fermented foods, which are ubiquitous in the local cuisine. After my Fulbright year, I plan to use my education and experience in the life sciences working as an analyst for ClearView Healthcare Partners in Boston. Ultimately, I hope to attend medical school and spend the rest of my career serving others with the same care and attention that I have been lucky to receive from my teachers, mentors, and loved ones.

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Q. What are your interests outside of academics?

A. My love for food extends outside the academic realm to nearly all other aspects of my life. I am a lifelong athlete, and so nutritional science is something that I hold close to my heart. I was the setter for Brown’s Women’s Club Volleyball Team, and I am also an avid weightlifter, hiker, and general outdoor‐activity enthusiast. Additionally, I am highly involved with eating disorder awareness advocacy, both as a Peer Mental Health Advocate for Project LETS (a national grassroots organization) and in my personal life. My personal connection to food stems more broadly from my identity as a first‐generation Filipina‐American; throughout my childhood and adolescence in the US, Filipino food was always one of the strongest connections I had to the country my parents came from. The prominent role of food in my home life has made me a passionate baker and cook. All of these interests and experiences come together in my love for storytelling, and I frequently use photography and writing as media through which to tell both my stories and those of the people I surround myself with.

Q. Now that you’ve graduated, what are your plans for the immediate future?

A. Beginning late August, I will be conducting research as a U.S. Fulbright Student at University of the Philippines Los Baños in Laguna, Philippines. My project focuses on microbiological characterization of traditional Filipino fermented foods, which are popular in the local cuisine. These fermented foods and their properties have greater relevance due to the recent popularization of “probiotics,” which are often marketed as the bacterial species present in fermented foods. Additionally, I hope my time in the Philippines will allow me to develop the knowledge, understanding, and capabilities to bring Filipino food to light on a larger scale‐‐though Filipino‐Americans make up the second‐largest Asian‐American demographic in the U.S., Filipino food is largely absent from culinary representations of Asian food in the States. After my Fulbright year, I will begin work as an analyst for ClearView Healthcare Partners in Boston. Ultimately, I hope to attend medical school and serve as a physician.

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Q. Why have you selected your field of study, and what impact do you hope to have in your field?

A. When I was a little girl my dad used to say to me, “Biology is the most elegant expression of chemistry and physics.” Never mind that he knew very little about the life sciences; even without a technical background, he recognized the possibilities present in the beautiful complexity of the world around us. He must have passed that recognition on to me, because even as a child, I always knew that I was going to study science. My insatiable curiosity about how things work and why they function drew me towards it. But as my scientific education started to fragment into different fields, my dad’s words were never far from the front of my mind. And indeed, as I grew older, I found that I couldn’t deny how much excitement and potential the constantly‐evolving field of biology held‐‐or that I wanted to devote the rest of my life to studying it. Concurrent with my longstanding fascination with biology is a lifelong conviction that I want to spend my life serving others. My love for helping and interacting with people drives all my endeavors, both academic and otherwise. My years in college especially taught me that I am only where I am today because of the love and care of the people around me, and the good fortune that’s been bestowed on me has solidified my resolution to do the same for others, to the best of my talent and ability. These two things, along with an unending desire to continuously and unceasingly learn, are the driving forces behind my determination to pursue a career as a physician. Just like the field of biology, the medical discipline sees so many advancements and changes every day, making it a dynamic, exciting environment that constantly demands on‐the‐job education. This satisfies the scientific curiosity I have always harbored. But the other, more important side of medicine to me is the fact that, at its core, the medical occupation is a service profession. To me, the way that I can best improve other people’s lives is by utilizing my strongest skills and abilities. Serving others as a physician would allow me to do both of those things, and I only hope that, by doing so, I will be able to touch the lives of others in as profoundly a way as others have touched mine.

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Q. Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?

A. I am very grateful to NMSC & its sponsors for believing in my ability all those years ago when I was applying to colleges‐‐I would not be the person I am without the experiences and opportunities you helped me access! Significance of Your Scholarship Award

Q. What did receiving your scholarship mean to you? Did it lead to any special opportunities?

A. At a basic level, receiving my scholarship provided the material assistance I needed to help me bear the financial burden of college. Making the choice to attend Brown was a very difficult one for me, because its private, out‐of‐state nature made it costly, even with financial aid. My National Merit Scholarship helped offset that cost, making my education more accessible to me. More importantly, though, the significance of receiving of the scholarship was a sense of reassurance that there were people that believed in me and my ability to succeed at college. As product of Michigan public schools and the first in my family to attend an American university, I was worried about whether I would be able to succeed alongside peers who grew up attending prep schools and were part of families with long histories in elite academia. My scholarship was a reminder that I am capable, and others recognize that, even if sometimes I’m unable to.

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