#ElonGrad 2021 spotlight: Margaret Hughes, biochemistry

In this series, Elon College, the College of Arts and Sciences is shining the spotlight on distinguished members of the Class of 2021 from a wide array of disciplines.

Lumen Scholar and Elon College Fellow Margaret Hughes knew she wanted to be in medicine since she was 9 years old.

Margaret Hughes '21
Margaret Hughes ’21

While at Elon, she found that a biochemistry major blended her “passions for understanding both the human body and the molecular phenomena that allow our bodies to function.”

She immediately loved chemistry after taking General Chemistry with Associate Professor of Chemistry Dan Wright. The affection is mutual: Biochemistry faculty named Hughes one of the top students in the Class of 2021.

Hughes is a member of Phi Kappa Phi, Omicron Delta Kappa, national chemistry honor society Phi Lambda Upsilon and Phi Beta Kappa.

Tell us more about your undergraduate research experiences.

During my first year, I conducted a small-scale project on nanoparticles for my General Chemistry class. Assistant Professor of Chemistry Justin Clar’s research domain encompasses a lot of nano-work. As a sophomore, I met with Dr. Clar again to discuss potential research projects and I was drawn to his passions for environmental chemistry. He was very willing to support my passion for investigating the biological implications of environmental chemistry, even though most of his research lies in the Chemistry Department.

Dr. Clar really helped guide me during the proposal process. We would sit down and throw around ideas, trying to blend our two passions into one project, and eventually we landed on plastics.

My project is entitled “The Release and Transformation of Metal Additives from Consumer Plastics” and I began experimentation during Elon’s Summer Undergraduate Research Experience in the summer of 2019. This project has allowed me to combine two of my passions: environmental chemistry and the human body. Essentially, plastics contain metal additives that help enhance numerous properties, but also present potential hazards as these metals can be released over time. We see this release to be especially true with plastics on construction sites, where construction activities such as sanding and grinding can cause plastic dust particulates to be released and accidentally inhaled or ingested. My project was examining the concerns of metal release once these plastics have entered either our lung or gastrointestinal tracts.

Being able to have agency over my own research project during the last three years has been an incredible experience, and really helped me to develop my critical thinking skills. When problems are encountered in the lab, rarely is there a “correct” answer, and most of the time it involves a lot of trial and error until we find a working solution. While the non-linear process was frustrating at first, it pushed me outside my comfort zone which has been very rewarding in the long run.

I presented at the South Eastern Regional Meeting of the American Chemical Society in Savannah, Georgia, during the fall of 2019 in addition to Elon’s Spring Undergraduate Research Forum this past April. COVID-19 unfortunately prevented me from attending additional conferences, though I was accepted to present at the American Chemical Society National Meeting and Exposition in Philadelphia in March of 2020. Nonetheless, I was very grateful for the two presentations I was able to give while at Elon.

What is your proudest accomplishment while at Elon?

During the spring of my sophomore year, I was awarded the Lumen Prize for undergraduate research. I was extremely humbled by the award as it has given me the ability to conduct my undergraduate research project without having to worry about funding limitations. Without this award, our access to instrumentation would have been extremely restricted. My project was specifically analyzing tin in polyvinyl chloride plastic.

Before fall 2019, we did not have an instrument that could carry out analysis for my samples. Because of the prize, we were able to purchase new instruments for the Chemistry Department that have allowed me to carry out my project on plastics and metals.

How did working with Dr. Clar influence your Elon experience?

My time at Elon would not be the same without Dr. Clar. While I came into Elon passionate about research, I was intimidated by the process of proposing and conducting a research project. Dr. Clar helped me every step of the way.

He was extremely patient during my first few months of research and is always willing to answer my questions or help me with problems I encountered. Even when I show up at his office door to tell him I spilled a sample, or to ask him the same question for the third time, he meets me with grace and compassion.

I also value how much Dr. Clar doesn’t just care about his students academically, but also on a personal level and is fully invested in their growth. When we ran into roadblocks (which there have been many of these last three years), Dr. Clar was quick to encourage me, and always made it clear that he cared more about my research experience than any results that I got.

He taught me how to trust my abilities and have confidence in myself both in the lab and the classroom. I never thought that I would be able to carry out my own research project, but Dr. Clar’s constant encouragement and support helped me to succeed.

I am also very grateful to the entire Chemistry Department. I spent a large part of my four years in McMichael Science Center.  Despite many of my weekdays and weekends being spent in this building (nothing like research at 8 a.m. on a Saturday!), I am grateful for the work and time that these professors gave their students and the compassion and help they have given me.

What are your future plans?

I plan to apply to medical school in May and will work as a medical scribe for a year before hopefully starting medical school in Fall 2022. I would also love to spend my year volunteering at either my local children’s hospital or homeless shelter, where I have done work in past summers.

Being on the receiving end of health care for most of my life has given me a passion to give back to a field that has always fascinated me. I have spent the last three years volunteering at the Open Door Clinic of Alamance County and am constantly reminded of the fact that basic healthcare should be a fundamental right, not a privilege. Therefore, being able to combine my love for science with my desire to increase healthcare accessibility is at the heart of my passion for medicine.

What advice would you give to future Elon students?

Lean into your support system. While college is an incredible experience, it is also extremely challenging. I think a lot of people like to focus on the positive experiences they have in college, but college can also be hard – you are living away from home, taking hard classes, trying to configure post-graduate plans, and it can be a really isolating experience at times.

Your support system is instrumental to your success. There are plenty of people at Elon who genuinely want to see you succeed and are willing to help you obtain your goals. Find those people. I met countless friends and faculty who shaped my experience here and encouraged me to pursue my ambitions. Once you find people who support you and show up for you, hold them close. They are hard to come by, but they make all the difference on the tough days.

What’s your favorite Elon tradition and why?

The Festival of Lights is one of the most magical traditions at Elon. I remember going with my hallmates my first year. Seeing the campus light up tree by tree was such a special moment. It is the one tradition I have consistently attended each year, and every year it takes my breath away. Especially last December, during the pandemic, it proved to be especially magical as it gave a sense of normalcy during a very different holiday season.