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The Brightest of the Best

Katherine Gumps, molecular biology and discovery informatics major

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For Katherine Gumps, the College of Charleston serves as a life-changing door to a new world.

Gumps knows her future is bright. She knows it can take her wherever she wants to go. But she also knows that, as long as she’s at the College, there’s no point in putting things off. The way she sees it, her time to shine is now.

“This is my chance, and I take it very seriously,” says the McNair scholar, who also received the 2010 Maggie T. Pennington Scholarship and the 2009–10 William J. Day Scholarship. “When you’re given an opportunity, it’s your responsibility to give it everything you have, to utilize it to its fullest extent.”

A junior double-majoring in molecular biology and discovery informatics, Gumps is definitely making the most of her time. With a keen interest in genetics, specifically epigenetics, she has conducted undergraduate research for nearly three years, supported by various campus grants, which allowed her to present her findings on genetic indicators for Batten’s Disease at the National Society for Neuroscience conference last fall.

Most significantly, Gumps earned the prestigious National Institutes of Health Undergraduate Scholarship, which will provide her with nearly $15,000 in tuition, a 10-week summer research experience with the NIH researcher of her choosing and a job at the NIH laboratories when she graduates in 2012.

“It’s more than I’d ever hoped for,” says Gumps, who had all but given up the dream of going to college by the time she was 18. When Gumps was 4, her mother was killed by a drunk driver, and – because her father wasn’t in the picture – her grandparents took custody of her, raising her to be an active, curious child. But then her grandfather died when she was 10, and things started to unravel. Uninterested in her classes, Gumps dropped out of school completely by age 16. She worked her way up at a tax firm for a couple of years, and then started impulsively moving around, even living out of her car from time to time. “I was completely unsettled – literally and figuratively. I was lost.”

Eventually, however, she found her way to Trident Technical College, and – after just a year – decided to apply to the College. “Statistically, I should’ve ended up in a gutter somewhere, not in college. So, I didn’t have too much hope.”

But she was accepted – and to the Honors College at that.

“That’s when I knew I could change my life. Here was a great school not just believing in me, but believing I could be one of its best,” says Gumps, although she ended up going for a double major rather than sticking with the Honors curriculum. “If I can go from living out of my car to studying at the College, then I can do anything I want to do.”

And there was so much she wanted to do – and so much she wanted to know.

“I felt like I had to learn every little detail about each and every thing,” recalls Gumps. “It was like I’d been starving myself for years, and I was finally getting the nutrition I needed.”

Even after a steady diet of lectures, lab work and research, however, Gumps still has an insatiable appetite for scientific discovery. This summer she will fulfill her 10-week NIH research at the National Institutes of Mental Health, where she will study experience-driven gene expression in the context of maladaptive psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia – an area that is of particular interest to Gumps, whose brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

As for her plans after college, they’re up in the air. She knows she’ll be applying to Ph.D. programs, since the NIH will defer her employment for graduate school. If not, she can choose any NIH laboratory to work in.

“I definitely feel like I have options – more than ever before,” says Gumps. “Before I came here, I didn’t care where I was going. Now that I know my potential, I can go anywhere – and that’s very, very exciting.”