CLEMSON, South Carolina – When Morgan Nichols takes the stage at the Miss South Carolina pageant this June, she will fulfill a dream – but maybe not the kind viewers would expect.
Nichols was recently named Miss Clemson and her excitement about the opportunity to showcase her passion for Science is evident in her platform “Stronger with STEM,” which inspires students to stick with STEM through exploration, education, and innovation.
Nichols is a Lexington, South Carolina, native and a senior in the College of Science‘s department of genetics and biochemistry. With a minor in business, she is blazing a career path that she is defining along the way.
“Growing up, I was always intrigued with the life sciences,” Nichols said. “I loved my biology classes, but at the same time, I loved public speaking, communicating, and leading. Coming into college to declare a major was certainly tough for me. As I was someone who was both ‘left-brained’ and ‘right-brained,’ I felt like I had to choose one side of the spectrum. I chose genetics. I figured, like many other students, becoming a clinician was one of the only ways I could showcase my skills in the life sciences through a profession.”
Nichols spent two summers working with Nephron Pharmaceuticals in Columbia where she was introduced to career possibilities that go far beyond the lab or doctor’s office. This experience led her to become passionate about telling others that the sciences can take you anywhere you want to go. She said many students decide during their college career that medical school is not what they want, just as she did.
“There are so many ways to get involved with the sciences,” Nichols said. “I currently hold an internship with SCBIO, South Carolina’s biotechnology organization. They are charged with telling the life science story in South Carolina – with growing the current industry and recruiting new industry to the state. I’m their membership and marketing intern, so I travel all around South Carolina meeting with these fascinating, world-changing life science companies – and learning about a new profession and industry area each time I do. Through my past four years at Clemson, I’ve seen so many students transfer out of the life sciences because they have such a limited outlook on post-grad options; I now have the drive to change that. Yes, you can become a physician – but you can also make the device the physician uses, or run the regulations of the practice, or manufacture the medicine prescribed – the options are limitless.”
Though Nichols has had some pageant experience, including directing one at Clemson University, becoming Miss Clemson was not on her radar.
“I always dreamed of being Miss America; however, it was only a few, short weeks before the Miss Clemson competition that I decided to go for it,” she said. “I was a little skeptical at first with only a few weeks to prepare, but with a platform that I was already acting upon and so passionate about, I signed up to compete. I used an old dress that I owned and an interview suit that I had. It all came together.”
Part of her interest came from the rebranding of the Miss America Organization with its new mission.
“Just as women in today’s society have evolved, the Miss America Organization has followed. The competition now offers more opportunities to showcase your personal initiative and how your skill sets allow you to take on the 365-day job of Miss South Carolina and Miss America,” she said. “I was interested in this new concept and wanted to see what it was all about. Since being crowned, I’ve already made strides with my STEM initiative that I otherwise would not have obtained. It has been a great microphone in accelerating my impact.”
Nichols has been in a unique position to see what industry leaders need and how that translates to K-12 and higher education.
“When I meet with life science companies, their technology is expanding, their infrastructure is growing, and their ideas are emerging – it’s exciting to see,” she said. “We have over 400 life science companies in South Carolina making more than a $12 billion in economic impact. It’s a growing economy, but the STEM workforce is not growing at the same rate. If we can meet this need, we can uncap the exponential growth of the life science industry in our state. It’s vital that our state is constantly seeking innovative ways to meet this talent demand.”
Part of this is letting students know about the unlimited potential they can find in STEM.
“From my experiences, a majority of students have very narrowed career outlooks with what they can do with life sciences, with a majority consisting of becoming a clinician,” she said. “What I want to tell them is that there are so many different ways to touch patients’ lives, without directly being hands-on. Yes, we need our clinicians and we need our researchers, don’t get me wrong, but we need to retain as many people as we can in this field. If we can do that, not only can we boost our economy in South Carolina and meet this talent demand, but we’re ultimately going to relieve suffering and create a better quality of life through this. I think that’s something that all South Carolinians can agree on that we want in this state.”
Stronger with STEM is designed to inspire students to stick with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) through exploration, education, and innovation.
“First, with exploration, I want to get students excited about the sciences,” Nichols said. “I think we do a great job in our schools of getting hands-on with other facets of learning. As far as the sciences go, I believe it’s vital to bring in more hands-on and engaging activities. That is something I do personally, but I also plan to empower educators across the state to do the same.
“The second part of the platform is education,” Nichols continued. “With that, I want to continue to diversify students’ career opportunities and outlooks on the science industry. At the collegiate level, one aspect is connecting them with various internships and co-ops to allow them to see the wide range of professions. At the K-12, it’s showing them different areas of the sciences that they can get into. If they like the life sciences, there are so many professions they can dress up for on career day other than a doctor.”
“And lastly, it’s innovation. This has been one of my passions – figuring out new ways that we can get these students to meet this workforce void. I’ve been able to work with many different key decision-makers to brainstorm and create modern-day ways to get students involved, trained, and retained in the life sciences.”
At Clemson, Nichols said she found the support and role models she needed to complete her degree and pursue her passions.
“My time at Clemson has been wonderful, especially with the College of Science,” she said. “The Dean of the College of Science, Dr. Cynthia Young, has been a great example of an empowered woman in the sciences for me.”
“Morgan Nichols is a wonderful role model for young people,” Dean Young said. “She exemplifies the importance of knowing your true self and what lies at your core, following that passion with conviction, and most importantly, how to harness one person’s voice to have a positive impact on the lives of so many others. We are looking forward to partnering with Morgan on her ‘Stronger through STEM’ initiative, and I personally am looking forward to shaking her hand at graduation as she earns her bachelor’s degree in genetics and launches her future – which looks very bright.”
The number of women Nichols sees excelling in the College of Science has motivated her to step out and encourage others along the same path.
“That’s what I want to be,” she said. “The women of South Carolina’s Life Science Industry have been great role models and mentors for me at the forefront of my career.”
For Nichols, there is no greater honor than representing Clemson and advocating for STEM at the 2019 Miss South Carolina Pageant.
“My why – why I’m doing this – is truly rooted in my platform,” she said. “I love to sing, perform, and the experience of it all, but this platform is really why I entered the Miss Clemson competition and why I’ll go on to compete at Miss South Carolina. Growing up, I always struggled with body image and self-worth, but I was really good at science. If I would’ve had someone come and show me that, yes, your skills are going to be useful and you’re going to be able to excel and have opportunities in this field, I think it would have allowed me to overcome those hardships and really given me hope for the future.
“And that’s what I want to be for others as Miss Clemson and as Miss South Carolina and as Miss America,” Nichols concluded. “Yes, I want to help the economy and allow for our life science industry to thrive, but I also want to connect with these students and show them that their skills are valued and can be used later on in life. There is hope for their future.”
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