August 21, 2017  

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USM Graduate Student Excels as Mentor, Polymer Science Researcher

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Abagail Williams, left, has been a mentor to undergraduate student Erin Crater, working in the lab of Dr. Joseph Lott. (Photo by Danny Rawls)

Recalling the adviser shortage she faced as a high school student in Independence, Mo., Abagail Williams takes immense pride in serving as a mentor to younger students while pursuing her doctoral degree in polymer science and engineering at The University of Southern Mississippi.

A first-generation college student, Williams has spent the past two years working the lab of USM Polymer Science Assistant Professor Dr. Joseph Lott. She is quick to point out that continuing her education experience has produced abundant rewards as both student and teacher.

“I really enjoy teaching students. When I work with students in the research lab, it is usually one-on-one which allows me to tailor my mentoring strategy to the individual,” she said. “Not all students learn the same way, and I put a lot of thought into finding the best mentor style for each person I work with. I’m not always perfect and my mentor, management, and leadership skills are all works in progress, but it’s something that I’m passionate about and am actively working on each day.”

Williams graduated from Center Place Restoration School – a small private Christian school – in her hometown of Independence. With minimal guidance in her search for collegiate options, Williams applied to just one undergraduate institution. She received a full scholarship to a modest private college, but her aptitude and affinity for science did not mesh with the school’s fine arts pedigree.

She ultimately obtained her Bachelor of Science degree from Missouri University of Science and Technology in chemistry, with an emphasis in polymers and coatings. She graduated magna cum laude.

“I wish I would have had someone to go to for advice back then,” she said. “That’s a specific reason why I love doing outreach at the high school level. I want to make sure the students know that obtaining college degree is doable and shouldn’t be something that frightens them.”

At the urging of her undergraduate research adviser, Dr. Thomas Schuman, Williams applied to the USM graduate program. Schuman completed his post-doctoral work at USM in the School of Polymers and High Performance Materials.

During her time at USM she has earned a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship while actively engaging in the University’s Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) and American Chemical Society Division of Polymer Chemistry and Division of Polymeric Materials Science and Engineering student organizations. She has presented work at many national conferences.

A strong recommendation from Lott helped Williams gain acceptance into USM’s Professionals in Preparation program, a professional development initiative that helps participants improve those “transferable skills” that will set them apart from others in the increasingly competitive job market.

“Owing to her outstanding intellectual abilities and strong work ethic, Abagail already stands out among her peers as a research scientist,” said Lott. “I feel honored to have the opportunity to be her Ph.D. adviser.”

Williams’ affinity for mentorship is reflected in her diverse outreach efforts. While pursuing her doctorate at USM, she has mentored:

  • High school student Sumar Buti, who won first place in the Mississippi Science and Engineering Fair for Region 1 (11-12 grade inorganic chemistry). Buti also won Most Outstanding Exhibit in Materials Science from the ASM Materials Education Foundation. She has been selected to participate in the International Science Fair.
  • Two local high school teachers
  • Undergraduate student Jared Bates, who graduated as the School of Polymers and High Performance Material’s first recipient of the new Bachelor of Science degree in Polymer Science and Engineering
  • Current USM undergraduate students Erin Crater and Kaden Stevens. Crater recently won best STEM poster at the Mississippi Honors Conference. Stevens won best undergraduate poster presentation at the Waterborne Symposium (international conference).

Williams has also volunteered extensive hours of instruction to elementary and middle school students, providing polymer science demonstrations in both on-campus and in-class settings. Lott deems her a “first-rate role model” in every measurable category.

“Abagail displays a congenial personality, a tremendous work ethic, a passion for science and the advancement of herself and younger colleagues that ensures she will be an excellent example for all of her future students,” said Lott.

Williams notes that her short-term goals are to focus on writing papers to publish her research in scientific journals. Her long-range plans include securing a post-doctoral position after graduation, then pursuing a career in academia as a research professor.

For a young woman unsure if she possessed the credentials to excel as a graduate student, Williams has performed at the highest level while sharing the benefits of her journey as a peer and mentor. A love of chemistry paved her pathway to USM. Modest and humble, Williams remains wide-eyed about working in a sophisticated university laboratory.

“Every day I get to work with intelligent, hard-working individuals from all different backgrounds to explore the unknown,” she said. “How cool is that?”