Victoria Coutts ‘17, or Tori, as she prefers to be called, is a proud alumna of Millersville University (MU) – and now, one of a select group of people who holds the distinguished title of National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship recipient.
Long before she found herself studying stress levels in birds and drafting up a proposal for the prestigious fellowship, Coutts found herself on campus as an undergraduate student at MU. “My motivation to study at Millersville was initially to study at an in-state university close to home that was affordable,” said Coutts, a Hershey, Pennsylvania native. “But when I visited for the Admitted Student Expo and met the faculty of the biology program, I was amazed. The biology program at Millersville was incredible – which was surprising to me, given the university’s size and its well-known reputation for its education programs.”
Coutts said that choosing Millersville ended up being one of the best decisions she made. She also noted that Millersville’s faculty members were a formative part of her experience as a student and pre-professional, and she still stays in touch with a few. “Dr. Carol Hepfer was, and still is, influential in my life. She taught me almost everything I know about molecular biology and good lab techniques,” she said. “We became close during my time at Millersville and she became a great person just to talk to during undergrad. Whenever I come back to Pennsylvania, we always have lunch together with other former students and faculty members.” According to Coutts, her four years at Millersville were some of the best years of her life.
“I felt right at home at Millersville, especially when I was doing my undergraduate research,” said Coutts. “It taught me lab techniques and how to scientifically write, solve problems and critically think. I enjoyed the challenge that research brought me, and it helped me decide my career goals.”
As it turns out, research was a perfect fit for her. Today, she’s earning her Ph.D. in Biological Science at Auburn University, with a focus on research and an eye towards someday teaching. “When I started research as an undergrad, I initially just wanted the experience. However, the more I worked and learned about my research, the more I loved it.”
Now, she’s putting those skills into practice in her Ph.D. program. With the fellowship she receives, she plans to study the declining rates of bird populations. “Throughout my career, I aim to understand why some bird populations continue to survive under poor conditions while others don’t and provide the ability to predict how populations will respond to environmental changes,” she said. “To start at a smaller scale, I study developmental stress. Typically, those who study stress only study how animals respond at the cellular level (such as proteins) or the whole animal level (hormones, for example).”
The ultimate goal of this research, she explained, is to be able to correlate the stress response at both levels, so that scientists can understand the full picture of how animals respond to stress. Coutts hopes this research and what its findings reveal will be a step in the right direction to help prevent more bird populations from going extinct.
Each year, there are approximately 12,000 applicants who apply for funding from NSF, while only about 2,000 received them. Coutts said she’s still trying to take it all in. “It hasn’t really sunk in that I got this fellowship to be honest! It is an amazing opportunity. This is such a prestigious fellowship that will be an enormous asset to me in the future – and, most importantly, it means I will have more time to dedicate to my research.”