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Goodnight Spotlight: Aiden Winters

Since joining the Goodnight Scholars Program in the Fall of 2018, Aiden Winters ’22 has visited a staggering 18 countries across the globe while solo traveling and traveling alongside fellow Goodnight Scholars. Some of his favorite trips include a travel abroad experience to Australia, a trip to South East Asia with fellow Goodnight Niambé James, and a service based Spring Break trip to Trinidad and Tobago with the Goodnight Scholars Program. Along with immersive and enriching travel across the globe, Aiden spent 4 years at NC State conducting research on Tick Borne Diseases, mentoring other Goodnight Scholars, and pursuing his interests in the field of Microbiology. In our latest spotlight, read what Aiden is up to post early-graduation from NC State, and his reflection on the lasting impact the Goodnight Scholars Program has had on his life!

Goodnight Scholars Program: Tell us about yourself!

Aiden Winters ’22: My name is Aiden Winters and I recently graduated from NCSU as a Microbiology major with a minor in Global Health. I am part of the class of ‘22 but decided to graduate a semester early so I could take time to travel and explore before joining the workforce and applying to graduate school. I was born in Cary, NC and went to high school there but I lived in Arizona from when I was 6 to 14 years old. My favorite things to do are try new restaurants, cook new cuisines, go hiking and exploring, and play with my cat Paris (named after Hilton, not the city).

Since joining the Goodnight Scholars Program, how many countries have you been to? Any fun travel stories to share? How has the Goodnight Scholars Program enabled many of these travels and experiences?

I have been able to visit 18 countries since I started the program back in Fall 2018. I think my favorite experience traveling would have to be my trip to South East Asia with Niambé James from Class of ‘22. The two of us were studying abroad in Adelaide, Australia in the Fall of 2019 and we decided to plan a cultural excursion to visit Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand during our mid-semester break. This was the first time that either of us had done travel that did not involve the university planning and coordinating it, and it was incredible. There were definitely major ups and downs in the trip but I learned so much and was able to make some of my best memories to this day. Culture shock was challenging at times but having the opportunity to experience some of the best food in the world, learning about history from a non-americentric perspective, and meeting some amazing travelers from around the world made the whole thing a blast. The Goodnight Scholars Program has been the main factor that has enabled me to visit so many countries. Some trips such as Trinidad and Tobago and my study abroad experiences to Poland and Australia involved direct funding for academic purposes; however, all of my other trips including my travel to Latin America, Europe, and South East Asia were only possible by using proper budgeting of my money from Goodnight and my part-time jobs. Without Goodnight though, none of it would have been possible. The Goodnight Scholars Program has also set me up with resources beyond pure finances that have helped me travel. It enabled me to live in the NCSU Global Village where I met many of my friends abroad, helped me learn how to budget, and gave me the confidence to feel comfortable on my own in these new situations. 

What inspired you to pursue a degree in Microbiology? What are some of the largest lessons from the field of study that you will take with you outside of NC State?

I decided to pursue a degree in microbiology because I have always had a passion for reducing the global burden of infectious disease. While I did debate on studying within a more quantitative field such as statistics, I felt that having a fundamental understanding of pathogens would align with more of my interests in working directly with infectious agents. I have learned a great deal about microbiology, the impact of science on the public, and the history of pandemics during my time as a microbiology student and teaching assistant. The biggest lesson that I can take away from my time with the program is the importance of science and the dangers of misinformation. Microbiological breakthroughs such as vaccines and antibiotics have been the most impactful events on the quality of our lives today in my opinion. It is hard to imagine a time before these things were in our lives which makes it hard to appreciate the true impact they have had. Vaccinations, for example, are one of the safest and most effective public health breakthroughs ever and prevent millions of deaths on a yearly basis. Looking back historically, there has always been a fear of advancements in public health and science and it is no different from today; however, it is important for scientists and public health officials to learn about this history to show people that these advancements are nothing to be afraid of by making the science more accessible to the general population. A population that understands science is much less likely to live in fear of it. 

Can you talk a little about your research experience at NC State, and research areas of interest?

My research interests fall under the umbrella of vector-borne neglected tropical disease control and prevention. Where exactly within that realm I would like to end up, I am still trying to figure out. I have interest in working with molecular/microbiology but am also interested in epidemiology and disease ecology. While at NCSU I have had the opportunity to work in two separate labs. My first experience was in the NCSU Biocatalytic Textile Lab where I worked as a research assistant in a project involving enzyme immobilization. Unfortunately I am not allowed to delve into details of this experience due to confidentiality reasons, but the experience helped me to develop many of the skills needed for my future research. My most significant experience has been working with the CDC Southeastern Center of Excellence in Vector Borne Disease in conjunction with the Reiskind Lab at North Carolina State University. In this position, I have worked as a research assistant with a primary focus of tick borne disease research. Tick borne disease is a major problem in the United States and research in this field is becoming much more necessary. My involvement in this position has focused on collection of ticks within different sites throughout North Carolina, identification of those ticks, and then testing them for pathogens in the lab. After working here for over a year, I have secured a passion for the prevention of vector borne disease and have become more interested in public health through the lens of ecology and ecological systems. 

During your time in the Goodnight Scholars Program, you applied for, and received enrichment grant funding! Walk us through the process of what an enrichment grant is within the Goodnight Scholars Program, how you applied, and what you personally used your enrichment grant for? 

I have been lucky enough to receive four enrichment grants from the Goodnight Scholars Program within my 3.5 years as a student. Enrichment grants provide students with opportunities such as study abroad, unpaid internships and research positions, attend conferences, and to pursue entrepreneurial endeavors. Having this type of funding available is very exciting so I wanted to take a chance to get an enrichment grant in each of those categories. The application process for these grants starts by submitting a general proposal of what you plan to use the money for, providing a detailed budget for your experience, and then selling it in an interview. The process typically takes around 3 weeks to a month to complete and has provided me with support to do things I could not have imagined possible without. My first enrichment grant was used to help fund my travel expenses for my study abroad to Australia. My second provided me with the opportunity to work as an intern at the Georgia Department of Public Health within the epidemiology department. The experience was during the Summer of 2020 based out of the main office in Atlanta and would not have been possible in the slightest without support from the grant. My third grant was used to fund an entrepreneurial endeavor involving me learning the ins and outs of kombucha brewing. Finally, my last enrichment grant was used to attend the annual meeting for the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. Having these experiences greatly impacted my time at NCSU and is part of why the Goodnight Scholars Program is so special to me. 

Reflecting back on the last 4 years within the Goodnight Scholars Program, what memories will last a lifetime with you? How did the mentorship experience within the program impact you?

There are so many wonderful memories that I will cherish from the program but the best will always be the trips and the people. My freshman year, I took my first trip out of North America when I went to Trinidad and Tobago with the Goodnight Scholars Program. Trying the cuisine, connecting with locals, and building strong bonds between me and my team members, and learning about the modern day impacts of colonization was unforgettable and life changing. I appreciate that there is such an emphasis on hearing new perspectives and learning within this new program. Although we are a STEM based scholarship, humanities and social sciences are just as important to the world and that is represented within our programming. The people I have met in my four years have also made an enormous impact on me. Many of my friends have gone on and left for graduate school, but I still maintain such strong connections with them. Just back in January I went to visit one of my friends that graduated in 2020 in England! The mentor program in particular has really helped me to develop many of my closest and most impactful connections from this program. While being a mentee was a great experience, I found such joy in acting as a mentor when I started my junior year. Over the last two years, I have been able to work with the four most amazing mentees! Being able to see all of these people blossom into the mature, accomplished, and confident individuals that they are today is unlike any experience that I have had. I understand the importance of having a support system of older friends to help you through your experiences and I really wanted an opportunity to be able to pay all of the support I was given over the years forward. My mentees from both this year and last year still will meet with me, even post graduation, and I feel so thankful to be able to be part of their lives. I am excited to continue to watch them grow and see the amazing things that they all do over the next few years. 

Now that you have graduated and are moving onto the next chapter, what is in store for you? What at NC State will you miss most?

As of right now I am currently still working with the Reiskind Lab doing research on tick borne diseases but I am planning to have a new, full time job by June. I am looking for positions that will hopefully strengthen my microbiology and molecular biology skills before I apply to graduate programs. I think understanding yourself and what you want to do before you apply to something as serious as a PhD is critical and it can be hard to know if you want to commit to working in something before you have spent at least a year working in that area outside of university. My goal for the distant future is to hopefully hold a career in which I will be able to help with the control and prevention of vector borne neglected tropical diseases. I hope to find something that will allow me to travel, do field work, and also incorporate molecular biology into the research; however, this is very far down the line so I will start by getting myself out into the workforce and developing the skills that will get me here one day. In terms of what I will miss the most about NC State, I would say that it is the amazing faculty and staff. While making friends with my peers has obviously been wonderful, some of my most meaningful connections have been with different faculty and staff throughout the university. The faculty within the Microbiology department are some of the most caring, kind, and insightful people I know and I will miss having the ability to regularly see and catch up with them. My advisors and professors within that department have supported me through some of my most challenging times and I will be forever grateful for the perspectives and education they have provided me with. Along with faculty, the Goodnight Scholars Program professional staff have been my rock throughout my experience at NCSU. From before I was even a student to after graduation, I have been able to walk into their offices and feel supported. Whether it be interview preparation, travel planning, ranting about school stress, or even just hanging out, I have never felt like I didn’t have a support system at the university largely due to them.