Story: Lisa Sollie / Photo: Cody Ingram

An insatiable appetite for learning led first generation college student Zaria Gulley to the University of West Alabama, and a future in public health.

Shy and reserved growing up, Gulley kept mostly to herself, finding enjoyment and escape reading in her room. Since arriving at UWA last year, however, she has become president of the university’s Student Rural Health Association, conducted her first major research project, and has secured an internship with the Alabama Coalition for Healthy Mothers and Children. She most recently became a member of Student Leadership Council with the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics and will serve as one of the undergraduate representatives for the Department of Biological & Environmental Sciences.  

“Growing up in a small town like Livingston, there weren’t always many opportunities here, especially at my high school. I knew when I got to college I wanted to get involved and learn as much as possible so I could make the connections I’d need to get a job or get accepted into graduate school,” she noted. 

UWA was an easy choice for Gulley, since it was close to home and very affordable, thanks to outstanding scholarships like the Biology Opportunities and Scholarships for Success II (BOSS II). Following on the heels of the successful 2014 BOSS scholarship program funded through a $609,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, UWA’s Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences was awarded a $1.5 million S-STEM grant (Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) from NSF in 2022 that funded BOSS II. The six-year program is designed for undergraduate students enrolled in one of the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences’ majors. Gulley, a cell and molecular biology major, was one of only 12 students to be selected to receive the annual scholarship of $8,500, which is renewable for up to four years and includes attendance at professional-level meetings and conferences as well as the opportunity to conduct research, providing her real-world experience to pair with her academic classwork.

Gulley learned about the scholarship from biology professor, Dr. Mustafa Morsy, and UWA’s principal investigator of the BOSS II project. He was also instrumental in her decision to study cell and molecular biology, a major that he said, that would give her a good foundation to later attend physician assistant school, her original plan after graduation. His advice and guidance would prove fortuitous for the now sophomore student.

 “It’s not easy being a first-generation college student, but Zaria has the motivation and desire to be better,” said Morsy, “and I applaud her for trying hard not to stay in her comfort zone and leaving no opportunity untapped. She’s a modest student by nature, and I often have to remind her not to be afraid to highlight her successes, and not fear those she may think are better than her.”

 As principal investigator for the BOSS II project, Morsy also has the charge to encourage BOSS II scholarship recipients to get involved in research as well as apply for internships to make them stand out after they graduate.

Zaria examining the bacteria growth on the TCBS agar (Photo by Cody Ingram)

Her research project this semester is studying the bacteria, Vagococcus lutrae, which has been discovered as a human pathogen in recent years, alongside Dr. Hung King Tiong, principal investigator and assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences.  “The goal,” she noted, is to learn how this bacteria grows, its characteristics, how prevalent it is and how it affects seafood consumers, because the bacteria can be isolated from a marine host. We’re also hoping to discover a culture method for Vagococcus lutrae.  Just being able to explore and discover things like this is very exciting!”

No longer interested in PA school, Gulley has her eyes set instead on a career in public health, although she is conflicted on exactly what that will look like.  She learned of the field when her sister began working on a master’s degree in the subject, but it wasn’t until she did a research paper at UWA on women’s health and reproductive rights, and then had to defend her case in class, that Gulley considered it as a career.

“I am interested in doing research on women related diseases, like Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), because I know someone who suffers from it,” she said, “but I would also like to do something related to advocacy—I want to help women with their reproductive rights. Regardless of which route I take, everything I’m involved in now will help get me to the next level.”

Thanks to sociology professor, Dr. Russ Davis, that involvement includes UWA’s Student Rural Health Association. Davis, who is on the board of the Alabama Rural Health Association (ARHA), was also instrumental in forming the student chapter, of which Gulley is president.

Zaria and Dr. Davis discussing future plans for Student Rural Health Association. (Photo by Lisa Sollie)

“Even though Zaria isn’t a sociology major,” Davis noted, “she has a huge interest in public health and making a difference in people’s lives. A large chunk of what we do with the rural health association here on campus, and the partner organizations we work with, is to get our students connected and give them opportunities and experiences they can use to sell themselves at the point of application to professional school.”

One of the partner organizations he works with is the Area Health Education Center, (AHEC) an organization and federal program that is administered through the state. According to Davis there are seven AHEC regions in Alabama that administer community development grants and health education pipelines at the high school level and up through the professional school level. They also have the AHEC Scholars program, a two-year program available to students studying social work, psychology, sociology, political science, business — anyone connected, even remotely to healthcare.

“I have an annual on-board day for students to sign up for the program and Zaria jumped right in there and was accepted,” Davis recalled. “As an AHEC scholar she receives a $500 scholarship and is responsible for 20 hours of training, through online modules, a year.  The state AHEC organization also hosts a meeting where they bring all the scholars in the state together and cover the travel for that and in other in-person training or meetings to provide networking opportunities for the students as well.”

Another ARHA partner, the Alabama Coalition for Healthy Mothers and Children located in Vestavia Hills, recently expanded their community outreach initiatives and brought Gulley onboard as an intern to assist with that effort. She is the second UWA student to work with them.

“As an intern I am doing outreach, helping to update their resource app Help Alabama, which lists different organizations around the state like the Department of Human Resources or Department of Health, that exist to help Alabamians.  In addition, I will go into different communities and tell them about the app and what is essentially available in their own back yard,” she added.

Gulley also manages to find time to tutor students through Student Support Services and the Trio SSS Scholars program under the supervision of Daphne Bowden, an academic coordinator and education coach at UWA, who Gulley says has been very helpful, educating her on many things, whether it has to do with life or academics or both.

“Zaria has been a joy to work with. Not only is she very studious and she comes prepared for her tutoring sessions, but her students love her and think she is very knowledgeable about the subjects she’s tutoring them on. She is also patient and takes the time to get to know her tutees and figure out the best strategy they need to learn and understand the material,” said Bowden. “Zaria is also active in FLi Society, an on-campus organization for first-generation low-income students, of which I’m the advisor. Through FLi Society, she’s been involved in reading at the University Charter School during Read Across America week. She is definitely not the average college student, she’s really involved, engrossed in her work and takes college seriously. Her first priority is to learn.”

“Zaria is starting to come out of her shell,” added Morsy, “and by the time she graduates she will reach new heights she would never have thought possible a year and a half ago. I believe a major contributor to a student’s success is not us, the faculty, but those students who take advantage of the opportunities they have while they are here at UWA. And Zaria does that. She has great potential and we will be proud of what she accomplishes.”