The brown and white horse whinnied as his owner, Arabella Hunter, swung her leg over his back. They began walking laps around the arena, leaving wisps of dust swirling in the breeze behind them.
Rebel, the horse that Hunter was riding, is both her escape and inspiration for the research she is conducting as Clemson University’s sixth Beckman Scholar.
The materials science and engineering major is studying the effectiveness of hydrogels as a medium for intra-articular joint injections to treat osteoarthritis in the knees. She became interested in part because Rebel, who is 13, is starting to have some joint problems.
Hunter learned in spring 2021 that she was named Beckman Scholar, and she began her research in May. The program includes 15 months of funding for undergraduate laboratory research.
“It’s an incredible honor,” Hunter said. “I was so excited when I found out, it is so rewarding to know there is a group of people who believe in you and want to help you succeed in the name of science.”
As part of her project, Hunter is synthesizing new magnetic nanoparticle materials and building a one-of-a-kind instrument to characterize them. Her advisor, Thompson Mefford, an associate professor of materials science and engineering, said she is doing advanced work in organic synthesis and electrical engineering.
“She is an expert in many different things, and she is able to bring all those different things together,” he said. “The fact that she can take chemistry, physics and biology and combine all of them and that she is already doing world-class research, that’s what makes her special.”
While the research was partly inspired by Rebel, the work could be applicable to both equine and human patients, Hunter said.
Hunter is the third Beckman Scholar from Clemson’s College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences.
The Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation selected Clemson in 2019 as one of 13 institutions in the United States to receive a three-year Beckman Scholars Program Award. The program supported six undergraduate researchers.
Hunter, the daughter of Matthew and Carolyn Hunter, both chiropractors, is the youngest of four siblings. She graduated from Fort Dorchester High School in North Charleston.
Hunter said she chose Clemson for its welcoming environment, emphasis on research, central location between Atlanta and Charlotte and the financial aid she was able to receive.
She was a member of the Clemson Rocketry Club in her freshman and sophomore years, serves as vice president of Material Advantage, is a member of Phi Psi Honor Fraternity and has served as a PEER & WISE tutor for two years.
Hunter said the faculty members who have been most influential to her include Mefford and chemistry senior lecturer Elliot Ennis. Mefford has pushed her to do her best and to think beyond her undergraduate degree, while Ennis has helped her find her passion for science, lab work and “thinking outside the box,” she said.
Hunter said that when she steps away from the lab and classroom, she enjoys studying with her friends.
She also likes going to Seneca, where Rebel lives in a green pasture, to train three two or three times a week in dressage riding. In dressage, the horse and rider perform a prescribed set of movements that often looks like a dance.
Next summer, Hunter plans to travel to the University of Zaragoza in Spain to work with collaborators on her hydrogel research. She also plans to go to London for the 13th International Conference on the Scientific and Clinical Applications of Magnetic Carriers and Hawaii for the 2022 Materials Research Society Spring Meeting & Exhibit.
Hunter said that after graduation from Clemson, she wants to pursue a Ph.D. She is deciding on which discipline and whether she will go into academia or industry after receiving her doctorate.
“I’ve always wanted to be the person who did the chemistry for a product as well as bring it to market and sell it,” Hunter said. “I’ve always seen myself doing something like that, but recently I’ve realized that teaching might also be something I’m interested in.”
Either way, she will have some “horse power” behind her ideas and a solid orange foundation to build upon.
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