Clifford Morrison is the first UNT student to be in Emerald Eagle and Terry scholarship programs and is in the Honors College and McNair program.
UNT senior biochemistry and chemistry major Clifford Morrison was one of the academic stars at his small high school in the East Texas town of Hughes Springs. His high school counselor, a UNT alumna, encouraged him to apply to UNT. But Morrison didn't know how he could afford to go.
"I have a single mom who is unable to work, and she was unemployed for two out of the four years I was in high school," Morrison says.
Before he graduated in spring 2010, however, Morrison received an Emerald Eagle Scholarship from UNT. He also became one of the first 16 UNT students to receive a Terry Foundation scholarship. Morrison was one of the first UNT students selected for both scholarships, which are given to graduating high school students with high academic honors and leadership potential, and need high financial need to enroll at UNT.
"The existence of the Emerald Eagle Scholars program in particular spoke volumes to me about the level of commitment UNT demonstrates to its students. It's one of the reasons I chose UNT," he says.
Research becomes priority
With the two scholarships, Morrison did not have to worry about paying for tuition, books, fees or living expenses for eight full semesters, allowing him to concentrate on his career goal -- becoming a scientist.
Morrison had entered UNT as an Honors College student and took an honors chemistry class his freshman year. When several graduate students visited his class to discuss their research, he learned that the laboratory of Rob Petros, UNT assistant professor of chemistry, offered interdisciplinary projects spanning chemistry, biology and biomaterials.
At the start of his sophomore year in August 2011, Morrison began working in Petros' lab, where he's always been one of the youngest student researchers of the group. But his age hasn't stopped him from making major contributions. During the past three years, he's trained three other students, including a student from another university who worked in Petros' lab as part of a summer National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates program.
"Science doesn't always happen on paper. Science happens in a lab, because that's where your ideas come to life. If I had had to spend time working to pay for my education at UNT, I would not have been able to spend as many hours in the laboratory as I have," he says.
In 2012, Morrison became a student in UNT's McNair Scholars Program, and eventually logged 400 hours of work in a single summer under Petros, who became his McNair mentor.
Longtime interest in science and nature
Morrison said that growing up "in the middle of the lowlands and large forest" led to his interest in the environment.
"I've been surrounded by nature all my life and I raised animals and grew vegetables on our land," he says.
Morrison excelled in math and science at his middle school and high school. During his sophomore year, he was chosen for the Infinity Institute, a math, science and technology summer camp at Texas A&M University-Commerce. The camp focused on the interaction between math, biology, chemistry, and computer science.
"The math and science camp was my first real experience with the STEM fields, and made me decide to major in science," Morrison says.
The following summer, Morrison returned to the institute as an intern, and the program provided him with a college-level calculus course. The same year he also became a High School Aerospace Scholar with NASA.
An unexpected discovery
Once he began working with Petros, he began investigating new strategies for targeted drug delivery for patients with pancreatic cancer, which he says has a very low survival rate.
He started the research by investigating a process for synthesizing a prodrug -- an inactive substance that is converted to a drug within the body by the action of enzymes or other chemicals -- from the molecule Sunitinib. This prodrug can prevent pancreatic cancer tumors from growing.
But he soon learned that research doesn't always go according to plan.
Morrison later put that research on hold after he and the other researchers discovered a process for synthesizing other molecules like Sunitinib that could also be biologically active and become future medications.
He says the research team hopes that the synthetic process "could lead to a variety of therapeutic molecules that could each serve a different purpose." And after almost three years of work in Petros' lab, he says he's learned what some scientists may view as failure "is a learning opportunity" and that as a researcher he should not start a project with a conclusion already firmly set in his mind.
"If you do that, you're throwing out a lot of possibilities," he says.
Honored as role model to others
Morrison presented papers about his research at UNT's University Scholars Day in 2013 and this year, and a paper and a research poster at two Texas National McNair Scholars Research Conferences, which are held annually at UNT.
In addition to spending long hours in Petros' lab, Morrison found time to serve as president of both UNT's Terry Scholars and UNT's chapter of Alpha Chi Sigma professional chemistry fraternity. He also served as chair of the Honors College's Honors Council and as a peer mentor to students in two UNT chemistry courses. He was also selected for UNT's chapter of Phi Kappa Phi, the nation's oldest, largest and most selective collegiate honor society for all academic disciplines.
After his first year at UNT, Morrison received the Honors College's Frank W. Feigert Award for Outstanding First-Year Student. This past spring, he was awarded with the Department of Chemistry's J.L. Carrico Award for Outstanding Achievement by a Senior Chemistry Major and Honors College's David B. Kesterson Award, which is given to an outstanding student.
Most recently, Morrison received a $5,000 Phi Kappa Phi Fellowship and two graduate fellowships from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. He will begin RPI's doctoral degree program in chemical engineering after receiving his two undergraduate degrees in biochemistry and chemistry from UNT on Aug. 9. He plans to focus on metabolic engineering and research new methods of synthesizing renewable, sustainable fuels.
While he says he probably wouldn't have gone to UNT at all without the Emerald Eagle and Terry Scholarships, Morrison adds he may not have continued into graduate school without support from mentors who encouraged him to apply for the fellowships that are paying for his doctoral program.
"The Honors College, the McNair Program and other programs do a great job of facilitating conversation between students and faculty and encouraging students to achieve," he says.