SANFORD — When Gage Lindley first heard about a fairly new statewide scholarship, it didn’t exactly rock his world.
On one hand, the Samuel M. Taylor Memorial Life Sciences Scholarship did mirror some of his lifelong interests. As far back as he can remember, Gage always loved animals; in fact, that’s what first got him interested in pursuing life sciences at college. The money would certainly help, too; graduating debt-free was something he and his family considered during their college search.
On the other hand, Gage was already making a major transition from home-schooling to Central Carolina Community College, and the application required an essay, which seemed like more work at a fairly challenging time. Besides, what are the chances he could land a statewide award?
But he did. And how quickly things can change.
While only in its second year, the Sam Taylor Scholarship has already become a fairly big deal. Five scholarships were awarded last semester to North Carolina community college students enrolled in about a half-dozen life science programs, each winner receiving $3,000 per year to cover tuition, fees and books. Gage was one of the five; the others were studying at Durham Technical Community College, Johnston Community College, Pitt Community College and the College of the Albemarle.
The awards ceremony was a pretty big deal as well, taking place during an annual meeting for the North Carolina Biosciences Organization, a bioscience trade association where the scholarship’s namesake, Sam Taylor, served many years as president before passing away two years ago from pancreatic cancer.
Before he even left the meeting, Gage was making connections with influential people in the life science industry — and even was recruited for a job. It happened quickly and in an odd sequence of events.
“As they were announcing the winners, I stood up and dropped my phone,” Gage recalled during a phone conversation about his scholarship. “When I sat down, someone behind me picked up the phone, handed it to me and said she was a rep from Fujifilm. She offered me a business card and said that when I was interested in a job they’d like to receive my application.”
Since then, life seems to have detoured onto the fast track. Not long ago, Gage participated in a virtual career fair. Someone contacted him to see if he wanted to chat about careers and before Gage went offline, he was offered an entry-level job in biotechnology.
“I felt like I really didn’t even know much about the industry at that point,” he says. “I really didn’t expect to get the scholarship. It was when I got to the North Carolina Biotechnology Center (where the annual meeting was held) that I realized how big a deal it was.”
Not the typical student
Home-school is more common than it used to be, but maybe less for students interested in science. Gage did a lot of at-home experiments, which gave him an initial taste for the field of bioprocess technology that he eventually pursued, though his academic direction didn’t come into focus until Gage began taking college classes as a home-school student. He did so through Chatham County Promise, an arrangement between CCCC and the local government that eventually funds up to two years of free tuition for county residents graduating public high school, private school and home-school. When he graduated from home-school last May, Gage was already attending the college.
“I had no idea where I was going to land or what I was going to do,” he recalls. “I didn’t know what options I had. I was going to do a general science degree so I had flexibility, but I definitely wanted to do something in a lab or research in biology.”
As Gage’s college advisor got to know him better, she realized how much he liked life science and suggested the field of bioprocess technology. He went to discuss the idea with Dr. Lisa Smelser, who directs CCCC’s biotechnology program, and decided to sign up for classes.
“And,” as he says, “it’s snowballed from there.”
One of his foundational classes was BioWork, where students learn basic processes used in biotechnology, pharmaceutical and chemical manufacturing companies. When Gage walked in the door and scanned the room, he found himself surrounded by older adults making a mid-career change. It wasn’t what Gage expected, and it definitely isn’t the typical college freshman experience, but he dug in — and thrived.
“It was definitely a surprise when I got to class,” he said. “I was not expecting that, but I was comfortable with it. The person beside me, someone I did a lot of labs with, was older; he was already in a career and coming back to class. It actually was a great experience. We were able to share life experiences.”
His BioWork instructor, Dr. Brenda Grubb, remembers how well Gage worked with his lab partner, a machinist with 16 years of work experience, and she was impressed. Sometimes, younger students can get behind in this particular class and she often needs to “pull teeth,” as she puts it, to keep them on pace. Gage was different.
Grubb says she had students who have been working for 15 years and were there to improve their lives and make a career change.
“But the few students who were 19-ish,” she said. “They were brand new to this and trying to figure out what they wanted to do. Gage was a real superstar to be in that class and do so well.”
A look into the future
With a big boost from the Sam Taylor Scholarship, Gage is squarely focused on his studies. He’s in his second year of a two-year program, working toward the Associate in Applied Science. Oh, and he has a 4.0 GPA. But that doesn’t mean he’s not looking at what’s ahead.
At the moment, Gage is hoping to transfer to East Carolina University for a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Technology with a concentration in bioprocess manufacturing, a transfer program tightly integrated with his community college curriculum.
And he even knows what he’d like to pursue for a career: “upstream,” essentially a process that isolates, cultivates and grows cells that can be used in manufacturing processes from fermenting beer to developing pharmaceuticals and medical therapies.
It may not seem like there’s a tight connection, but it was that lifelong love of animals that helped kindle his interest.
“It’s just the fact that you’re working with living things,” Gage says. “Cells, bacteria and cultivating them. It’s so broad that I don’t even know where I’ll be once I graduate and am looking for a job, but I’m hoping I will be in the lab cultivating cells.”
That’s a fairly specific plan for someone just three semesters into college. Someone who entered a technical scientific field with an atypical background, a general interest in animals and, to be honest, no idea where to go or what to expect. Which is why Gage wants others with a similar background to realize that there may be more options out there than they can even imagine.
“For people my age, it can be really daunting going into college when you don’t know what kind of degree you need or see yourself in a specific job early,” he says. “But people are there to help you and get you on the right path to a career you want.”
Because, as he’s learned, things can quickly change.
For more information on Central Carolina Community College, which is dedicated to providing pathways to achievable dreams, visit www.cccc.edu.