Melanie Nicol knew she liked science from a young age. “It felt like a puzzle, and I enjoyed the mystery of discovery that science inspired,” she said. Now, she works as a tenured associate professor in the Department of Experimental and Clinical Pharmacology at the University of Minnesota.
Growing up in Union County with a family entrenched in the county 4-H program, Nicol knew she would join when she was old enough. “Everyone in my family was involved in 4-H,” she said. “My aunt and grandmother were volunteers for my club, and my dad volunteered with a different local club. Living on a dairy farm also meant it was a given I would go on to show dairy cattle.”
When she began looking at colleges, her experience with animals initially inspired her to pursue a career as a veterinarian, but after being asked about her interest in pharmacy while on a college tour, she changed her mind. “I decided on pharmacy because I knew it would involve a lot of biology and chemistry and would have a clinical component that would allow me to work with patients,” she said.
While obtaining her doctorate in pharmacy at Ohio Northern University, Nicol worked in a research lab and learned she loved lab work. “I fell in love with research and was interested in the possibility I could be the first person to discover something.”
Her passion for research prompted her to pursue a PhD, and after graduation, she was accepted at the University of North Carolina to study pharmaceutical sciences. “I wanted to work in translational research, an area of research that seeks to bridge the gap between lab work and clinical work. One of the labs at UNC was doing just that through their work in HIV research.” Through work in this lab, Nicol went into clinics and took HIV samples to bring back for testing.
Today, Nicol continues her work in HIV and translational research at the University of Minnesota and says the skills she learned through 4-H are still beneficial all these years later. “Completing 4-H projects was my first experience with project management, albeit on a much smaller scale. Documentation is crucial in research, and 4-H projects helped me learn the importance of this from a young age.” Growing up around animals also helped her become comfortable handling them and taught her how to care for them ethically.
For young 4-H’ers interested in pursuing a similar career, Nicol’s advice is to keep an open mind and follow your passions. “It’s important to stay open to new possibilities and remember that career paths aren’t always straightforward,” she said. “I don’t know anyone who’s had a linear career path, so you should always be prepared to pivot. In science, you can’t always predict the results of an experiment, and life works similarly. The important thing is learning how to act accordingly with the results you receive.”