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ECC Science Project Leads Graduate to Pursue Career in Conservation

ECC graduate Jilianne Leary is majoring in environmental science at NC State University. “I’m glad I attended Edgecombe Community College,” she says. “I gained more confidence, and I had an opportunity to do a lot of things I wouldn’t normally have done.”

Participation in a science competition at Edgecombe Community College helped shape Jilianne Leary’s academic and career goals.

In 2016 and 2017, while a student at Edgecombe Early College High School and ECC, Leary was a member of Edgecombe Community College’s NASA/NC Space Grant unmanned high altitude balloon challenge. In the April 2017 statewide competition, ECC students received three out of the top five awards.

In June 2017, Leary and two other students used data from the balloon challenge to develop their demonstration for the SkillsUSA National Leadership and Skills Conference competition, and they placed first in the nation.

“I felt like singing the song ‘Everything is Awesome’ from The Lego Movie,” Leary says about the national award.

Rebecca Stamilio Ehret, ECC physics and industrial trades instructor, says she enjoyed watching Leary’s confidence grow during her time at the College.

“Jilianne is a bright, talented young woman. She cares greatly for others and the environment,” Stamilio Ehret says. “I had the pleasure of working with her on several projects during her time with us at ECC. She is very inquisitive and strove to learn beyond the classroom.

“She learned about wiring, soldering, high altitude balloon science, and preparing solutions, among other skills, but the best was that she mentored other students on our balloon project and helped them learn as well.”

Leary’s role on the team of engineering, computer science, and other STEM students revolved around an experiment to see how red blood cells and plant algae were affected by high altitude. Professor Matthew Gibson at the University of Warwick in Coventry, England, developed a protein polymer to keep red blood cells from freezing.

The goal was to determine whether the samples could survive the extreme cold temperatures of near space. Both the algae and blood mixed with the antifreeze polymers survived the flight.

Practical uses of the polymer would be to keep organs viable longer for transplants, Leary says.

“There were so many different elements to our project – capturing data, taking videos, doing experiments,” the 19-year-old Leary explains. “We had so many different people with different skill sets who worked together as a team.

“We all learned from each other to create this one product. I think that’s what put us over the top.”

Now Leary is using her work at Edgecombe Community College as a foundation for a career in conservation. “I want to help conserve the environment in some way,” she says.

Leary earned associate degrees in both science and art at Edgecombe Community College while she attended the Early College. She has just begun her second semester at North Carolina State University and is studying toward a bachelor’s degree in environmental science.

“I’m also thinking about minoring in electronics and then maybe working with solar panels when I graduate.”

Leary enjoyed her time at ECC, and she says her experiences there were a springboard for her education and future.

“I’m glad I attended Edgecombe Community College. I gained more confidence, and I had an opportunity to do a lot of things I wouldn’t normally have done.

“Also, it put me ahead for my current college journey.”