Oct 11

Perspective | The ‘rural sauce’ and how zip codes don’t define success

One thing all great scientists, pioneers, and discoverers have in common is their insatiable curiosity. Secretary Machelle Sanders of the N.C. Department of Administration is no exception to that rule, attacking every mystery with a “why” and transforming possibilities into achievements by asking “what if?”

Raised in Belhaven, N.C., Sec. Sanders began her adventures in STEM early when her parents gave her a chemistry set when she was still in elementary school. This piqued her interest in science, an ember fanned into a flame by her high school Biology and Chemistry teacher, Mrs. Sandra McCann. While her teacher’s lessons were rooted firmly in the scientific method, Sec. Sanders recalls that what she loved best about Mrs. McCann was how she replied to her “whys.”  She encouraged questions, recalls the Secretary.

“My ‘why’ would trigger a structured problem-solving process allowing for critical and analytical thinking, curiosity, creativity and the most rewarding part, which was finding solutions—validating my predictions or not.”

Her early education was not confined to her classroom, however. She took advantage of Belhaven’s small museum, entering with questions and leaving with a quest to know more. She sought hands-on experimentation and discovery, catching tadpoles, and observing butterflies (a lifelong favorite).

She graduated from Bath High School with just 62 other students and headed for an unbelievably huge NC State University. While initially she felt she’d missed opportunities afforded her big city school peers, looking back, she values the close, personal relationships she built with her teachers and the leadership opportunities and community engagements only a small school setting with that “rural sauce” could provide.

Still, she recognizes that rural communities (and students) face unique challenges from broadband access to transportation to recruiting educators. She continues to advocate for these small communities and wants rural students to know they are valued and that their “future success and destiny does not have to be limited by their zip code.

“Instead,” she says, “Let it be accentuated and accelerated by their rural perspective, experiences, authentic ability to connect to others, with a solid education as their foundation.”

Her passion for chemistry and biological processes eventually led to her receiving a Bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry, and launching her into leadership roles at Biogen, Purdue Pharmaceuticals, and Diosynth-Akzo Nobel, overseeing manufacturing, global quality assurance, and quality control. After years of hands-on pharmaceutical experience, she pursued a Master of Health Administration to support expanded responsibilities as a biotechnology and pharmaceutical executive.

These experiences and her passion for public service led her to where she is today; at the state’s N.C. Department of Administration, where she has real impact on policy statewide, transforming her passion for improving the lives of all residents into action.

Specifically, one of her goals is to recruit girls and young women into the STEM fields. She wants all girls to know that, through STEM, you can do whatever you want because your foundation of problem-solving is solid. So dedicated is she to supporting the next generation of STEM superstars, a colleague from her career in the biotech field acknowledged her impact by establishing the Machelle Sanders Science Opportunity Scholarship. This need-based scholarship offers assistance to students in the College of Sciences at NC State, with preference given to students from northeastern North Carolina counties — the very same region where Sec. Sanders made her first leap into science, math, discovery, and the never-ending pursuit of an answer to “why?”

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