August’s Extraordinary Leader: Learning the Human Side of Research

Rebecca Ulrich 2Rebecca Ulrich always wears her hot-pink lab glasses in Congdon Hall’s Room 352.

She can lose herself for hours. She’ll be doing experiments listening to her “Hymns for Hipsters” playlist on Spotify knowing that research is her future and her future involves helping the health-starved poor.

She saw it firsthand in Uganda and South Africa, children with distended bellies and adults suffering from AIDs. It made her heartsick. Now, this 20-year-old biochemistry junior from small-town North Carolina wants to do something about it.

After what she discovered at HPU, Ulrich sees biomedical research as her professional path. She wants to help people in some of the world’s poorest countries battle illness and disease.

She’s got the intellectual horsepower. Ulrich is a college scholar and a leader described as an “open spirit” by one of her mentors.

She’s also an award-winning researcher who this summer spent eight weeks at a university in southwest England working with cancer-fighting drugs.

In the process, in a place she never lived, she found that she could, in her own words, “stand a little taller.”

Ulrich is HPU’s Extraordinary Leader for the month of August.

Her work in Room 352 helped. But that’s just the beginning.


Ulrich and Carolyn Adams, assistant professor of Spanish

Ulrich and Carolyn Adams, assistant professor of Spanish

The Poignant Moments of Mentorship

Every week for the past three semesters, Ulrich and her roommate, Catherine Bakewell, see Carolyn Adams every week. They call her “Senora.”

The weekly visits started when Bagwell took Adams’ Spanish class. Adams helped Bakewell brush up on her Spanish, and the two had so many interesting conversations Bakewell invited Ulrich to come, too.

Soon these conversations turned into introspective discussions about life.

Over green tea and cookies, the three have talked about everything in Adams’ first-floor office in the Plato S. Wilson School of Commerce. Ulrich saw it as a safe space where she could have what she calls “little nerd moments.”

And in those moments, her busy campus life slowed down. She found a mentor, a friend, a confidante in Adams, a mother of two who has taught at HPU since 1996.

Adams, an assistant professor of Spanish, enjoyed it as much as they did

“They are exploring, and you need that extra time and engagement to get feedback,” Adams says. “Trust is important, and just to have that good, healthy dialogue to show and to learn and to ask and to listen.

“And Rebecca, she is such an open spirit. She gives a lot. Not just to me. But to others. She’s exceptional at that.”


Research is Rebecca

At HPU, Ulrich is a University Ambassador and president of the American Chemical Society. She’s a member of Alpha Lambda Delta, the freshman honor society, and she helped establish Campus Outreach, HPU’s new Christian ministry.

Ulrich has made the Deans’ List every semester. She’s a Presidential Scholar and one of only two recipients of the Presidential Founders scholarship when she came to campus three years ago.

Ulrich spent nearly eight weeks this summer working with cancer-fighting drugs at the University of Bath in southwest England.

Ulrich spent nearly eight weeks this summer working with cancer-fighting drugs at the University of Bath in southwest England.

Meanwhile, she lives for research.

She started out with Research Rookies, a program started by Dr. Joanne Altman, and two summers ago, she participated in the first Summer Undergraduate Research Program in the Sciences, better known as SURPS.

She has presented her work at various symposiums, and this summer, she received a highly competitive REU, or Research Experience for Undergraduates from the National Science Foundation, to study at England’s University of Bath, one of the world’s top research universities.

She received a $4,000 stipend and worked around four other students. She was the only undergrad, the only American.

Later this month, Ulrich will be one of only 20 students to present at the Southeastern Regional meeting of the American Chemical Society in Columbia, South Carolina.

She was awarded a travel grant because of her research pertaining to the design and synthesis of small peptides that can be used to control bacterial behavior. That grant, her professors say, shows that other scholars beyond HPU have begun to recognize the importance of Ulrich’s research.

“I love being able to discover things and illuminate areas that people don’t know a lot about,” she says.

When Ulrich first came to HPU, Ulrich thought about becoming a pediatric surgeon. But her advisor Dr. Meghan Blackledge, an assistant professor of chemistry, got her interested in research.

But it was more than that.

“I’d say something like, ‘I’m not good at this!’ and Dr. B would stop me and say, ‘Wait. Growth mindset. No, you’re a good student,’” Ulrich says. “Hearing that instilled confidence in me.”

But what instilled her curiosity about the Third World was totally different.


Rebecca Ulrich and her family lived in Uganda when Ulrich was 4-6 years old.

Rebecca Ulrich and her family lived in Uganda when she was little.

Finding Africa, Finding Heart

Ulrich was 4 years old when she arrived in Uganda. She spent two years there, working with her veterinarian mom and learning from her veterinarian dad, who homeschooled her and her brothers.

Her mom taught villagers how to care for livestock, and Ulrich color-coded the instruction manuals with oranges and yellows, reds and blues.

Meanwhile, the family lived in a concrete house with a dozen chickens and two dogs, named Razzle and Nana. Ulrich, the middle of three, swung from mango trees with her brothers, acting out characters from the film trilogy, “The Lord of the Rings.”

At age 12, Ulrich went back to Africa. This time, she went to South Africa with her family where they lived in a brick house with Zibbie, Patch and Peppermint, three cats they brought from home.

Her mom taught at a local university; her dad homeschooled her and her brothers; and Ulrich babysat children of two missionaries and got active in a local church.

Like in Uganda, Ulrich spent two years in South Africa, and her perspective on the world rippled far afield from her home in Troutman, North Carolina, population, 2,383; a town of two square miles an hour southwest of HPU.

“I’ve seen people hurting because of illness and those illnesses could be cured with proper medicine and proper treatment,” she says. “Seeing all that gave me a heart to stop it at the root of it all.”


‘Me and God’

So, inside Room 352, with her hot-pink lab glasses, Ulrich works with a purpose.

She’ll be beside Dr. Blackledge or other students or by herself on weekends listening to Spotify and carrying out experiment after experiment.

She is happy.

“I get to learn more about something so beautifully created,” she says. “It’s just me and my lab. Me and God. We’re in there playing with my bacteria.”

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