As a first-generation college student with the sole responsibility of paying for her college education, University of Missouri–St. Louis biochemistry and biotechnology student Keona Hughes feels like she’s standing on the shoulders of giants.
The St. Louis native has received scholarships from organizations such as the William L. Clay Scholarship and Research Fund, the Omicron Eta Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, the Upsilon Omega Foundation of Omega Psi Phi, the Royal Vagabonds Foundation, the Jackie Robinson Foundation and Panda Cares, the philanthropic arm of Panda Restaurants.
Recently, Hughes was awarded the Rooted in Science Scholarship from Proctor & Gamble. The scholarship is given to Black women who are pursuing degrees in STEM fields at HBCUs or United Negro College Fund-member schools. The recipients of the Rooted in Science Scholarships, in partnership with CVS, each receive up to $5,000 per year for up to two years for expenses associated with pursuing their degree.
“I’ve won a great deal of financial aid and so many people – from St. Louis-based organizations and ones nationwide – have come to my assistance to help me,” Hughes said. “I’m so grateful for anybody who supports me because if you invest in me then that means you see the potential in me, potential in the goals I want to pursue and the changes I want to make in the world.”
Hughes, who is on track to graduate in the spring, has been so impacted by the support she’s received that she’s decided to pay it forward by one day establishing a scholarship foundation for students like her.
“Even before college, I always had this mission of, ‘I want to help students who are just like me,’” Hughes said. “My parents didn’t go to college, and I’m 100 percent responsible for paying for my schooling. I’m coming from a certain background where there might not be a lot of people in your family who went to college, and you have to figure out a lot of stuff on your own.”
Hughes said that goal was the driving force behind the selection of her college work study job with the Triton Telefund. She works with alumni, faculty and staff to raise funds for the UMSL Scholarship Foundation.
“I purposely chose that role because helping students pay for college is a mission in my life that I want to do when I’m older and more established and get my career on track,” she said.
Hughes, who is majoring in biochemistry and biotechnology, is appreciative of the academic support she’s receiving as well because of the challenging field she chose to study.
“It’s like the essence of everything,” Hughes said of biochemistry and biotechnology. “It’s the merging of technology, chemistry, biology and physics to conduct research and development to help us make a variety of products and try to tackle leading problems in the world such as illness and environmental issues. I love it because you can do anything in biochemistry and biotechnology.”
Her interest in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields originated from high school.
Hughes graduated from McKinley Classical Leadership Academy, a St. Louis public school for gifted students, as the class salutatorian and with a 4.0 GPA. At McKinley, Hughes was drawn to science- and math-based classes and especially enjoyed her chemistry and environmental sciences classes. She was a geometry and algebra tutor and the team captain for Envirothon, a national high school environmental education competition.
Hughes also participated in a cadaver lab and human anatomy program at Washington University in St. Louis and was a recipient of UMSL’s Distinguished Achievement Awards for Excellence in Science in 2017.
“A lot of things I did in high school made me want to continue on in STEM,” Hughes said. “Even at UMSL – when I won the Excellence in Science Award, we were able to look at a lot of graduate student work – all of those activities I really enjoyed them.”
Despite her excitement about the field, Hughes said studying STEM subjects doesn’t come easily for her.
“I find it challenging, but it’s an area of interest that I really enjoy, so that outweighs the difficulty level,” said Hughes. “But STEM is no joke for me. For some people it comes easy, but I definitely have to work at it. There’s a lot of studying.”
After spending her first two years of college attending Xavier University of Louisiana, Hughes transferred to UMSL to complete her studies.
She found the transition to UMSL seamless.
“When I transferred here, it was like coming back home,” Hughes said. “I looked at all the schools in St. Louis, but I already had a connection with UMSL from that experience of getting that award. So I was already familiar with UMSL, and then I saw that they had my program and, of course, the affordability – you couldn’t beat that compared to other schools.”
In addition to her studies, Hughes is excited about the opportunity to do work in the field with a research internship in the Biomolecular Engineering Department at Georgia Tech this summer. She’s doing research in computational chemistry, using software to study molecules and their environments.
“Research internships are very competitive, and this gives me the experience I need before graduating,” Hughes said. “I really love this internship because I’m actually able to think and develop something independently, so it just makes you a better thinker and problem-solver.”
Hughes isn’t yet sure how she’s going to apply her studies and practical work experience after school because there are so many options in the fields of biochemistry and biotechnology, everything from food science to cosmetics to energy and beyond.
But wherever she ends up, Hughes is going to remember how she started and all of the help she’s received from organizations and individuals. She credits academic advisor David McGraw for keeping her class schedule on track as well as the support of Patrick Troup, a mentor from the Jackie Robinson Foundation, and the St. Louis community overall.
“All this support really does make me think of the positive things that are going on here,” Hughes said. “Even though there are some bad things going on, St. Louis has some beautiful organizations of people who are trying to help children from many types of environments get into another track.”