Nashua Community College alumna Alicia Finney plans to begin her Ph.D. in the Cellular and Molecular Biology program at the University of Vermont in Burlington this September.

“This program is ideal to my interests, as it will allow me to focus not only on research, but also on teaching, and being an effective science communicator, as well as a scientist,” said Finney. “In a Ph.D. program for the sciences, you will generally focus on a specific type of project within your field - in this case, broadly being cellular and molecular biology.” While it is too early to know exactly what her dissertation research will be, she’s currently very interested in the intersection of microbiology, epigenetics, and cancer biology.

Alicia began her college journey at NCC as a 22-year-old freshman in 2013, where she studied in the Liberal Arts program with a science concentration.

“What ultimately led to my choosing molecular biology is a culmination of classroom, research, and internship experiences that I found exciting, as well as conversations with valued mentors, some of whom I met at NCC!”

Previously during her time at NCC, Alicia was interested in pursuing a career as a Physician’s Assistant, which led her to focus on the biological sciences. “At the time when I was a student, the course offerings for the life sciences were mostly geared toward Chemistry, so I took several classes with Dr. Aliyar Mousavi. Dr. Mousavi is an incredibly kind, patient, and supportive person, and became an important mentor for me during my community college years,” she said.

“One of the most precious aspects of teaching chemistry to me is to see the progress made by people like Alicia,” said Dr. Mousavi, adding they first met in Introduction to Chemistry. “I also remember her progress to General Chemistry II, when she was my student again, and how seriously she took her science education. Further, I truly enjoyed working with her as the founder and president of the Science Club at NCC in the 2015-2016 academic year. I am extremely pleased to know that she is about to start her Ph.D. program.”

Alicia also took Microbiology and Genetics with Dr. Steve Laken. “It was these classes that really began to make me seriously consider a path towards research as an alternative to healthcare, as something I would find more personally meaningful.” After transferring to UNH Manchester through the community college transfer pathway, she met Dr. Kristen Johnson, with whom she conducted her undergraduate research in pancreatic cancer biology. “It was my work with her that solidified for me that I would be well-suited and personally fulfilled by a career in academia, conducting research and mentoring young scientists.” After graduating from UNH Manchester in 2018, Alicia had an internship at Dartmouth in clinical molecular pathology. Another summer, she worked with Dr. Laken on a biotech startup project, while teaching biology at private boarding school, Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. during the academic year. She’s now in her third year teaching until her Ph.D. program begins in fall 2021 at UVM. “These experiences were what helped me narrow down the subject area to molecular biology – which, oddly enough, is still an enormous category,” she said. Alicia attending high school in Nashua, but did not graduate. “This fact is ultimately what led me to NCC in the first place. I grew up in a severely socioeconomically disadvantaged home and community, and had always struggled in school. By the time ninth grade rolled around, I was so academically behind from years of unaddressed underperforming that I simply stopped attending high school a few weeks into sophomore year, and no one asked me to return.” After years of restaurants and retail jobs, she got a position in a dental clinic where her colleagues encouraged her to pursue a GED. “I earned my GED at age 21, and at 22 I enrolled at NCC – thinking, at first, that I might complete a course or two, perhaps earn a certificate or two, and move on. Now at 30, it has been a long and incredible journey, and I am so excited and grateful for the opportunities I’ve had, and those who have believed in and supported me.” As she got more involved on campus, she found more opportunity.

“For my first two years, I attended classes and immediately returned home, talked to no one, and was very isolated,” said Alicia.

Frustrated by the perceived lack of campus life, she showed up at a student senate meeting to share her thoughts, “Instead, what I found was a large group of very active students, creating their own opportunities. I started the NCC Science Club that week, and so many things changed for me. I met some very close friends that I keep in contact with to this day.”

She also cited Professor Patrick Meighan’s poetry class as a significant creative outlet. “Participating in the poetry nights through my last year, having work published in the school’s literary magazine, and all of the friendships that resulted, was such a wonderful component of my time.”

Alicia encouraged students to pursue their passions, “As a nontraditional student myself, I relate very much to the notion of feeling out of place in an academic institution, and how this can color your perspective. There is a diverse student body at NCC, and the professors are an enormously valuable resource. If you are unsure of what to do, academically, I encourage you to learn as much as possible. Take as wide of a variety of classes as you can literally or figuratively afford to take. It is only through lived experience that our paths become clearer.”

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