From a dream to a double major and prestigious honor thanks to Undergraduate Research

Allyson Thompson has always felt at home hiking in a prairie.

To her, life is better lived along a winding path. So it’s almost fitting that her path to NIU involved several twists and turns.

Thompson had a child at age 19, dropped out of high school, earned her GED and worked an office job for about a decade before pursuing her dream career of wildlife preservation and conservation.

“It feels like a calling,” said Thompson, who began spending time in nature as a boisterous child to avoid being bullied. “I played in the prairie, caught caterpillars and picked flowers instead of playing with other kids… My whole life I’ve always had an affinity for nature.”

If all goes as planned, the 34-year-old University Honors student will graduate next May with a double major in environmental studies and biological sciences.

As proud as Thompson is of everything she’s accomplished so far, she never thought she’d qualify to become a Yale Conservation Scholar this summer.

NIU Professor Holly Jones and Thompson’s mentor, Ph.D. candidate Erin Rowland-Schaefer, thought otherwise. With their encouragement, Thompson applied and earned the distinction.

She will spend the summer at a wildlife sanctuary in Sharon, Conn., as an intern in the Yale Conservation Scholars – Early Leadership Initiative (YCS-ELI) internship program. Part of the Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Sustainability Initiative at the Yale School of the Environment, the program provides opportunities for undergraduates who are traditionally underrepresented in the conservation field.

“Allyson has boundless energy, excitement and expertise to bring to this internship,” said Jones, who works with Thompson in her Evidence-Based Restoration Lab. Thompson joined the lab as a Research Rookie during her first year at NIU.

“All she needed from me as a mentor was a small push in the direction of applying. She did the rest and I’m so excited to see where this opportunity takes her,” said Jones, who holds a joint appointment at NIU in Biological Sciences and the Institute for the Study of the Environment, Sustainability and Energy.

Thompson will take part in a two-day orientation in May before starting a nine-week internship at the wildlife sanctuary of the National Audubon Society in Sharon, Conn. The YCS-ELI program provides living stipends and a salary for interns to work directly with environmental professionals. Scholars can return for a second year to intern with a different organization, laboratory or field site.

“I’m not sure exactly what it’s going to look like once I get there, but in terms of the job itself, it feels like home,” said Thompson, who’d like to become a wildlife conservationist working to help endangered or threatened species. She also enjoys land management.

“I want to get out and get my hands dirty as often as I can,” she said. “This opportunity is just going to open so many doors for me in the future so that I can actually make a difference.”

Now living in Sycamore, Thompson spent her middle school years in Woodstock, Ill. Growing up, she’d watch the late Steve Irwin, known as “The Crocodile Hunter,” and documentaries on animals and nature. Today, she ends her emails with the Irwin quote: “If we save our wild places, we will ultimately save ourselves.”

“It’s my calling to help repair the damage that’s been done in little ways that make a big difference so when I leave I’ve left a legacy I can be proud of and I’ve done my part,” said Thompson, who hopes to set a good example for her now nearly 16-year-old child.

She decided to pursue her career path during the pandemic.

“I just basically looked at my life and was like, ‘Am I happy? Is this what I want to do? Is this the example I want to set for my child?’ The brass tacks answer was no,” she remembered.

She eventually earned two associate’s degrees at Kishwaukee College before transferring to NIU. Before enrolling, she’d already read papers written by Professor Jones “just because I’m kind of nerdy and I really admired her work,” she said.

She learned about Research Rookies during orientation and immediately sought to become part of Jones’ lab. It took some convincing when Jones first approached her about the Yale program because she said she felt a bit of the imposter syndrome, as if she wasn’t worthy. The application required essays and a curriculum vitae she had yet to create.

With the backing of Jones and Rowland-Schaefer, she said she just “laid it all out there.” She wrote about being adopted as a child, her Native American roots and her experiences as a teen mom parenting her child, who identifies as gender queer and uses they/them/their pronouns.

“I really had to ask myself, ‘Do I have what it takes to represent NIU as a Yale Conservation Scholar and how can I do that in the best way possible?’ I guess they liked my answers,” Thompson said.

She now finds herself nervous, but eagerly anticipating the summer.

“This type of opportunity will be transformational for Allyson,” Jones said. “She will have the opportunity to connect with other like-minded scholars who are underrepresented in conservation, and to get critical hands-on experience. She was already bound to be a trailblazer in her future career; this will help launch her even further.”

Written by: Nothern Illinois University; used with permission. Find the original article here.

Founded in 1978, the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) focuses on providing high-quality and collaborative undergraduate research, scholarly, and creative activity. Among the many activities and networking opportunities that CUR provides, the organization also offers support for the professional growth of faculty and administrators through expert-designed institutes, conferences, and a wide-range of volunteer positions. The CUR community, made up of nearly 700 institutions and 13,000 individuals, continues to provide a platform for discussion and other resources related to mentoring, connecting, and creating relationships centered around undergraduate research. CUR’s advocacy efforts are also a large portion of its work as they strive to strengthen support for undergraduate research. Its continued growth in connections with representatives, private foundations, government agencies, and campuses world-wide provides value to its members and gives voice to undergraduate research. CUR is committed to inclusivity and diversity in all of its activities and our community.

CUR focuses on giving a voice to undergraduate research with learning through doing. It provides connections to a multitude of campuses and government agencies, all while promoting networking and professional growth to its community.