In our last edition, we introduced the SEED program and discussed how it brought real-life STEM opportunities to students who might otherwise not have had this type of exposure. Read the full story here. Today, we meet one of SEED’s graduates, Chelsea Sumner, and learn how this innovative program set her on the path toward success in STEM education and now in her career.
How did you get involved with the SEED project?
It was by force (only slightly kidding). My mom worked at my high school and one of my counselor’s daughters had gone through the program prior and spoke very highly of it. At the time I was finishing up my sophomore year and when my mother suggested it, I was less than thrilled to give up my entire summer for what sounded like summer school. I literally applied on the last day the application was open and convinced two of my friends to do it with me so that I wouldn’t suffer alone. In hindsight, this decision and ultimately the encouragement from my parents and counselor was probably one of the single most influential decisions to impact where I am today.
What were you missing in your traditional in-classroom education that you got from SEED?
To this day, I have never received the amount of discipline and supplemental education that I did in SEED. My parents did an amazing job of augmenting my education in the classroom with family vacations to historic sites and book reports during the summers, but with SEED I learned about the limitless possibilities of a STEM career. On Saturdays, we had what was called SALT and it was there that our supplemental education occurred from reading books, meeting STEM professionals across disciplines, practicing public speaking, and participating in Q&A. In school you’re taught that when you do well in math and science, you can be a doctor. In SEED doing well in math and science means PhD, PharmD, DPT, DO, MD, DNP and the list goes on.
I was exposed to so many different areas of science and I no longer felt stifled to pursue the one thing my traditional schooling indicated I should do. I read books about black scientists and their contributions to society that I never knew of (thinking of Vivian Thomas as portrayed in the film Something the Lord Made featuring Mos Def). I learned discipline in how to prepare for presentations whether in front of an audience of 2 or an audience of 100. I was taught science beyond what I learned in the classroom including how to think critically and solve problems that may not yet have the answers. It was because of SEED that I discovered pharmacy and ultimately what my life would look like in the next decade.
Can you describe your relationship with your peers and mentors in the program?
I’m actually I’m headed on a birthday trip to Spain with one of my close friends that I met in the program during my second year. I have two really good friends, one from Fayetteville and one from Durham. We were all at different sites during our time in Project SEED but all three of us ended up at UNC for pharmacy school and graduated together. I joke that we are built differently since we came through the program. But I can say Project SEED is a family and even compare it to making it through boot camp together with the discipline, the lessons learned, and the opportunities to be your best self that are uncovered.
I love my Project SEED family (which now includes both my brothers) and even though my class is now over a decade old, if I post to any social media account: “If excellence is possible…” I know without a doubt that one of my PS family will respond with “…then good is not enough.” God bless Mr. Kenneth Cutler for creating a legacy that will far, far outlive him and the impact that he had on students’ lives.
Where are you now? Can you attribute your current successes to a foundation built with SEED?
I can definitely attribute my current successes to my foundation built with SEED. There aren’t too many high schoolers I know who by the time they completed high school had two years of graduate level research in analytical electrochemistry done in a lab (thanks to Dr. Leslie Sombers at NCSU!). In addition, my research completed with Dr. Sombers helped me win a ton of local, national, and even international science competitions. I first learned about pharmacy as a career through Project SEED and met my mentor Carla White, whom I affectionately call Dean White during SALT in my first year. I maintained that relationship with Dean White through high school, undergrad at Campbell University, pharmacy school at UNC and to this day. I received my degree in Clinical Research and double minors in Biology and Spanish before heading straight to Pharmacy School at UNC. After completing pharmacy school, I completed a post-doctoral fellowship with Eli Lilly and Company in pharmaceutical project management. I then transitioned into marketing full-time at Lilly before I recently transitioned into tech where I am now responsible for over 600 healthcare AI startups in North and Latin America at NVIDIA.
My parents always said that the world is my oyster and to do as much as I dream possible. I keep that in mind every day, and I’m driven by my experience with SEED and the reminder that anything short of excellence is less than I’m capable of.
So many of the SEED participants have gone on to great things—Masters degrees in biology, chemistry, and public policy; M.D.s and PharmDs; and even an MBA from MIT—and dozens have sought to “pay it forward” as they pursued PhDs and teaching careers. Among some of these bright stars are these SEED success stories:
A UNC Chapel Hill Graduate School student completed a PhD in Microbiology and Immunology and went on not only to teach at Harvard University but to serve as the Lead Investigator for the Moderna vaccine at the National Institute of Health.
- A Campbell and UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy grad obtained her PharmD and was honored with the Eli Lilly Fellowship in Pharmaceutical Project Management.
- A graduate of both Wake Forest and NC State achieved a PhD in Chemistry and now serves on the leadership team at BASF.
- A biology student who completed her M.D. at Morehouse School of Medicine is now an M.D. of Pediatrics at Loudoun Pediatric Associates.
- A graduate of NC A&T is now a mechanical/design engineer at Boeing in Charleston.