Student finds UW Bothell a place to start again

By Douglas Esser

Her Southern accent hints how far Amanda Morgan has traveled to become a student at University of Washington Bothell. But, it’s even further than the physical distance from Georgia and Florida where she grew up and lived. In her engaging voice, the 36-year-old mother of three tells her story of becoming pregnant at the age of 17 and dropping out of high school. She matter-of-factly describes an abusive marriage that left her with the message, “You’re nothing, you’ll never amount to anything.”

Now, thanks mainly to her own initiative, and with the help of UW Bothell professors (and wetland songbirds), she hopes to eventually earn a Ph.D. from the University of Washington. She wants to work in the field of neuroendocrinology, with the goal of understanding and treating neurobiological brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Morgan’s life turned around after her marriage ended and she realized she had to “redevelop myself as a person.” She believed that she was “greater than I had been told.” Morgan earned a GED and had aspirations for college, although it was not an expectation for her. Her parents were not college-educated. “College was not driven in our home,” she said. Morgan started taking college classes after her divorce but found it impossible while working two jobs. “It was just excruciating. I had to kind of let that go and focus on my children because they were very young at that time,” she said.

When she had a chance she resumed college classes in psychology with the idea of helping dementia patients and their families. Another turning point came when she met her fiancĂ© Brian, whose job brought them to the Seattle area. She planned to finish her psychology degree online. With his encouragement she began looking at universities for graduate school. She literally ran into UW Bothell while jogging on the North Creek Trail, training for a half-marathon. “We literally went, ‘What is this?’”

Still another turning point occurred when she felt she could go extend her interest in psychology into neurobiology and behavior. Morgan decided to shelve her nearly completed psychology degree and work on a degree that could put her into a doctorate program, “surrendering to my own passion, a greater passion and studying more of the mechanistic side of the brain.” She decided to study the neurobiology instead of neuropsychology of dementia. “Instead of being the person that possibly helped the family of that person, I wanted to be the solution of the problem and find ways I could better understand the effects of how degenerative disorders come to be,” Morgan said, “and be part of that greater cause.” Brian encouraged her to go for it.

UW Bothell was the right place to start over, building the prerequisites in chemistry, biology, calculus “I just felt it right away that University of Washington Bothell was for me especially with my age and the smaller campus,” Morgan said. “I was more interested in being able to come to school, attend my lectures and focus solely on that subject matter.” She also was pleased to get an early start on research. “This is the cool thing about University of Washington Bothell. I can do graduate-level work in research as an undergraduate,” she said. Morgan became a student of Douglas Wacker, assistant professor of animal behavior in the School of STEM biological sciences division.

“I constantly hear her chatting with other students in little study nooks around Discovery Hall, as well as with other undergraduate researchers in my lab,” Wacker said. “She may not realize it and would certainly be too modest to admit it if she did, but she’s acting as a mentor to these (slightly) younger students.”

His work involves birds on the campus wetlands, including the notorious crows, although Morgan is not part of the crow team. “It’s pretty exciting,” she said. “We’re doing some cool stuff.” Winner of the 2016 Founder’s Fellow Research Scholarship, Morgan attributes her success to mentors such as Wacker, Director of Undergraduate Research Charlotte Rasmussen and Kim Gunnerson, who taught Morgan her first class at UW Bothell. “She literally took me under her wing, and she was instrumental in me gaining the confidence that I needed, in particular that I belong at University of Washington Bothell and that I could do this,” Morgan said. “She’s more than just a professor. She’s just amazing.”

Morgan is on track to graduate in the spring of 2017 with a Bachelor of Science in Biology. She’s applying for the UW doctorate program and hopes to earn her Ph.D. in four or five years. Now she’s a student with a 19-year-old son, who lives in Florida. “So I have a child that’s as old as those I’m going to school with,” she laughs. Morgan also has two daughters living with her in Woodinville, 14 and 17, with the older girl now making her own college plans. Amanda and Brian are making their own plans to marry after she graduates. “It’s a closure and opening to a whole new journey,” she said.

A journey that aims toward a career as a neuroendocrinologist, working for a better understanding and treatment of neurodegenerative disorders. “I want to know more. Why is this happening? What can I do to prevent this?” she said. Morgan shares her life story because of the possibility it might help motivate others. “If you had told me at 17 I would be looking at getting a Ph.D. in neurobiology I would have thought, you’re crazy,” she said.

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