The following article is courtesy of USciences' Colby Gallagher, and can also be found here:
For the last four years, Brittany Rickard PH/TX'19 has not just managed a full class load and a Division II sport, she's knocked it out of the park. In early May, the Honors student and Devils softball infielder learned she was the Class of 2019 Valedictorian.
"Being named valedictorian was surreal," said Rickard. "Of course it's an incredible personal achievement, but I'm also so proud to represent the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Pharmacology/Toxicology program as its first valedictorian."
After graduation, Rickard will continue her education at UNC Chapel Hill where she will pursue an MD and PhD.
In April, Rickard was also honored with the Professional Practitioner Award at the Annual Student Leadership Awards Brunch. From the outside, it would seem that she's learned how to balance her responsibilities with ease, but Rickard says it was extremely challenging.
"Managing softball, schoolwork, and research were never easy. Softball is like a full-time job and a lot of people don't understand the commitment that we put in each year," said Rickard. "Research, on the other hand, was a bit easier to manage because you can do it at your own pace, but I also had the best research mentor I could've asked for. At the end of the day, balancing athletics, academics, and research was the hardest thing I've ever had to do, but I wouldn't change a thing."
Some of her research throughout her time at USciences included niche topics that might have been recognizable to few outside of the realm of the pharmaceutical sciences, yet she also managed to delve deeper into a recognizable topic out of sheer curiosity following a trip to Iceland in the spring of 2018 with USciences' Honors Program.
"If you had asked me if I would've been presenting a research poster on recycling straws in my entire lifetime, I would have laughed," said Rickard.
One of the things she noticed throughout the trip was that restaurants didn't offer plastic straws -- even if you asked for one.
"I thought that was really interesting because we go through straws like nothing in the United States and I thought it was worth taking a look at," said Rickard. "I think Iceland really gave me an opportunity to see opportunities where the United States is not environmentally sustainable."
According to The Last Plastic Straw, an organization aimed at reducing plastic waste, Americans use an estimated 500 million plastic straws per day, enough waste to fill Yankee Stadium nine times in a year.
Not one to pass up an opportunity to learn, Rickard wanted to know what effects plastic straws had on the environment and why Iceland banned them.
"If they enter the oceans, we know that they can harm marine life, which Iceland takes very seriously because it's one of the things they pride themselves on," she said. "They biodegrade if they're left in nature, if they're hit by the sun, they leach out chemicals that are dangerous to not only wildlife, but humans."
Her interest in toxicology began before enrolling at USciences, a choice that Rickard calls her "best decision yet" due to the University's combined pharmacology and toxicology program. The last four years have only solidified her interest in the career.
"After graduation, I'm pursuing my Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I'll be joining their Biological and Biomedical Sciences Program with the intent of joining the Curriculum in Toxicology," she said. "Over the next couple of years at UNC, I'm going to try to complete both a Ph.D. in Toxicology and an MD in OB/GYN so that I can dedicate my career to researching the genetics behind and hopefully discovering better treatments for ovarian cancer."
In the grand scheme of things, Rickard didn't expect that trip to Iceland to hold such an important role in her academic career. However, she hasn't used a plastic straw in a year and has urged friends and family to follow in her footsteps, but says it's hard for people who are so used to the product and haven't researched its harmful effects.
To help educate others, she chose the topic as a poster presentation during the 17th Annual Research Day.
"When you're in such a country that is so environmentally sustainable and really a role model, I think you have to take advantage of that," said Rickard. "You're not exposed to these concepts over here, we don't care. Humans go through straws in the U.S. like nothing. When you're in a new country and you see a new concept that's not familiar nationally, I think that's something that needs to be recognized and really understand why they're doing it and why you're not."
Rickard says she never had an interest in international travel until the Honors Program opened her up to these opportunities. She credits the trips with making her more aware and encourages others to learn about, respect and appreciate different cultures.
As the valedictorian spoke to the crowd of more than 600 graduates at the Commencement Ceremony, Rickard urged others to use what they've learned to also make a difference.
"If there was ever a group of students capable of having an impact and changing the world for better, it's this one," she said. "Celebrate what you have accomplished because it was no easy task, and continue to be an inspiration for those around you."