As Walter Patterson talked, his enthusiasm for science bubbled up like the experiment he was working on in The University of North Carolina at Pembroke’s Biotechnology Lab. He clearly relishes the opportunity to work in a lab during his first year in college.
“This is a unique bacteria; it’s an outlier,” he said, holding up two test tubes showing two phases of its life cycle. “It is the only terrestrial bacteria that is bioluminescent [glows in the dark]. It has a lot of potential for agricultural and medical uses.”
A first-year student from Lumberton, Patterson is spending a lot of time in the lab. That’s why he chose UNCP instead of a larger research university. The university’s 2014-15 Farm Bureau Scholar is pursuing a career in research.
“I get excited here; this is the most awesome job in the world. I get to work with a bioreactor that costs more than my car,” Patterson said. “I came to UNCP because there was a guarantee that I could get into a lab as a freshman. My first paper is under review for publication in a peer-reviewed journal, and I am working on three more.”
Patterson’s talent in research was recognized as a high school senior when he was the overall winner in the 2013 Region IV Science Fair. When Patterson took his research project to the state Science Fair, he realized that he needed more training.
“It looked like the other projects had professional advisors from universities or research companies,” Patterson said. “They took extra initiative, so I did too. I started working here with Dr. Holmes after the Science Fair.”
Len Holmes is a veteran UNCP chemistry professor and director of the Biotechnology Research and Training Center at COMtech. Walter’s work is most closely supervised by Floyd Inman, a researcher in the Holmes Laboratory.
“Walter is a creative young man, and has integrated well into the research climate of this laboratory,” Holmes said. “The Farm Bureau should be very proud of the difference their support has made on the education of many UNCP students like Walter.”
Patterson worked in the lab through the summer and continued into the fall semester as the newest Farm Bureau Scholar. He is also a member of the Esther G. Maynor Honors College, which requires a 3.5 grade-point average for membership.
On the day of this interview, Patterson was culturing bacteria and it was not going as planned. The oxygen levels feeding his bacteria were high. He consulted with Dr. Rinu, one of the international scientists working in the lab. Another of the benefits of working in UNCP’s lab is exposure to advanced science.
“This is difficult work, but it is the kind of job I want to do one day,” he said. “I hope to earn a Ph.D. and do this for the rest of my life.”
Patterson enjoys the science and describes it like a rabbit hunt through a constantly changing maze. “I am curious. Every question I ask in the lab raises 40 more questions,” he said. “One thing leads to another; I doubt I’ll ever run out of questions.”
Fully absorbed in the moment, Patterson, who just turned 19, injects fluids into a solution in the bioreactor and records notes. He has a huge scientific vocabulary and a remarkable ability to communicate scientifically.
Enrolling at UNCP “is about money too,” he said. “This is a paying job, and I live with family.”
Scott Bigelow is the public information officer at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke