Student Spotlight: Vincent Scola
Major: Associate in Science,
Associate in Arts
Former College of DuPage student Vincent Scola is completing his master’s degree in microbial ecology in the arid expanses of southern Africa’s Namib Desert.
Working with the Centre for Microbial Ecology and Genomics (CMEG) at the University of Pretoria, Scola is undertaking research for his master’s thesis, “Desert Soil Microbial Communities Across a Xeric Stress Gradient,” which takes an up-close look at the effect water stress has on the microbial communities living under extreme conditions in the soil of the Namib.
Scola described his research site in the Namib as a beautiful, otherworldly place and said at first visit, he felt as if he was entering the first human outpost on Mars. He also said South Africa is a country of extremes.
“This morning I was trail running in a park near my campus and almost collided with a herd of wild giraffe,” he said. “This afternoon, I was using the DNA sequencing facility where the first genome in Africa was sequenced. It is things like that which make me take stock about how varied this place is and how lucky I am to be here.”
Although he’s visiting as an outsider, Scola said that he has felt welcome in South Africa. He also said that there is a great feeling of possibility in the country and that his experience has included much more than scientific research.
“We are only 20 years removed from the end of apartheid and the first free elections,” he said. “I was here during the death of Nelson Mandela and the first election in which the voters had never lived under apartheid. They call that generation the ‘born frees’ and their influence is starting to move the country in a new direction. It has been incredible to be here watching it all unfold.”
Scola began his college career as a Theater major at COD but discovered a new passion after enrolling in a biology course. Drawn in by the intricacies and the interconnectedness of biological systems, he was hooked during the section of the course that covered mitochondria, a cellular organelle that is responsible for generating chemical energy in a cell.
“I spent two weeks studying mitochondria and it felt like a grand symphonic crescendo when I realized this amazing process that took me half a month to even begin to understand was happening in trillions of cells in my body at that very moment,” he said. “The majesty of it hooked me into learning more about how life works.”
After earning both an Associate in Arts in Theater and an Associate in Science at COD, Scola earned his bachelor’s degree with an emphasis in molecular biology and a minor in chemistry from Northern Illinois University. Upon graduating from NIU, he went to work for one year as a research technician in the Department of Medicinal Chemistry and Pharmacognosy at the University of Illinois College of Pharmacy.
Following completion of that project, Scola decided he wanted to find ways to combine his background in molecular biology with more field-based research and began contacting scientists from across the globe for advice. As a result, he received an offer from the head of the CMEG at the University of Pretoria to join the lab and complete his master’s degree. Looking into what the program at the CMEG had to offer, he knew he had found the right fit and booked a one-way ticket to South Africa.
While it has been an extraordinary transition from theater at COD to microbiology in South Africa, Scola said he thoroughly enjoyed his time at COD and credited a passionate and supportive faculty that cared about his success for helping him to find direction in his life. He also said that the variety of the College’s offerings and opportunities for hands-on learning experiences put him on the track to success.
“The range of opportunity at COD really had an effect on me,” he said. “Through my acting with the COD Theater department I ended up working professionally doing Shakespeare and getting paid for it, which was incredible. I also had the chance to take chemistry practicals at Argonne National Laboratories and to attend lectures at Fermilab because of COD and the teachers who taught there. COD showed me the possibility and breadth of experience that was achievable through academia and the independent study courses let me widen my horizons even further on a schedule that fit my hectic life and enabled me to succeed.”
Currently finishing up work on his master’s thesis, Scola said he plans to return to the Chicago area, continue his job search in earnest and write up publications from the research he has done during his time in the Namib. He said he also plans to gain about 15 pounds eating all the foods he has missed while in South Africa.
“There is definitely a dearth of Mexican restaurants in southern Africa,” he said. “And don’t even get me started on the pizza.”
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