Mariel Gomez began her freshman year at Virginia Tech with a passion for chemistry and a specific interest in sustainability. When she found the sustainable biomaterials major in the College of Natural Resources and Environment (CNRE) during her first semester, it seemed like a perfect fit.

It proved such a good match that the May graduate has been named CNRE’s 2022 Outstanding Senior.

One key contributor to Gomez’s success has been the support of her academic advisor, Dana McGuire, and her faculty members. “I am fortunate to have had a mentor every year and have found all of the professors in the Department of Sustainable Biomaterials to be kind, experienced, and willing to help students as much as possible,” Gomez said.

Gomez is capping her senior year by collaborating with one of these professors, Kevin Edgar, as an undergraduate assistant in his research lab. She spoke about the experience and her time in CNRE: “College is not just about taking classes or getting a degree but about personal growth. I have had many amazing experiences and opportunities during my four years at Virginia Tech, including this exciting role in Dr. Edgar’s lab. And in every instance, there are takeaways guiding my career goals.”

This experience, however, is not her first foray into undergraduate research. As a sophomore, Gomez collaborated with Professor Tom Hammett to study specialty biofuels made from pine terpenes, the compounds that are responsible for a pine tree’s distinctive aroma.

Perhaps her biggest accomplishment — and career-building experience — was a six-month, full-time position during her junior year with PepsiCo, where she worked with the Research and Development Sustainability Commercialization Team. She landed this job by taking the initiative to connect with the team during a CNRE career fair.

Part of the job involved spending six weeks onsite at PepsiCo’s Valhalla, New York, lab. “I oversaw many cross-functional projects that were focused on improving our recycling stream as well as reaching the sustainability and global goals that PepsiCo has for 2050. One of my biggest responsibilities was serving as team lead for a database we developed to incorporate into the company’s online portal,” said Gomez, who was also taking online courses at the time.

“I learned so much more than I ever could have imagined and was able to overcome the need for my work to be perfect, a trait that can slow down your progress and potential. Being challenged in an area I had never explored before and having people recognize my work was very rewarding.”

Gomez has also participated in and learned from fieldwork and curriculum development experiences.

Last summer, she headed to Santa Fe, New Mexico, as a student environmental field technician for a project sponsored by the National Hispanic Environmental Council. She traveled to riparian areas (wetlands adjacent to rivers and streams) to study their ecosystems — and learned that fieldwork was not her ideal career.

As a sophomore, Gomez interned in her own department on a project led by Assistant Professor Jennifer Russell that focused on the development and delivery of interdisciplinary educational modules for circular economy education.

Russell said Gomez played a significant role on the project and was responsible for completing critical review, fact-checking, coordinating final deliverables, and staging more than 24 teaching modules that included content development, activities and multimedia tools, and assigned readings. The topics Gomez engaged with cut across themes of environmental science, engineering, design, social sustainability, economics, and systems-thinking.

“Not only did Mariel demonstrate a wide range of professional skills and a great work ethic, but she was also required to build her own knowledge of these diverse topics so that she could assess completeness and call attention to any identified gaps,” said Russell.

Another notable fact about Gomez is that she has been a member of the National Guard since 2019. She currently serves as supply clerk for her unit headquarters. While joining primarily for tuition assistance, Gomez gathered a lot of important lessons from the training, including not only how to be a leader but also how to be a part of a team that works together to get past unique and difficult situations.

Gomez also received support for her academic endeavors through departmental scholarships. As a Hokie, she was honored with the G. Scott Francis Scholarship and the Victor Clay Barringer Endowed Scholarship.

As she prepares for graduation and looks at the resume she has built during her four years at Virginia Tech, Gomez said she has now “become a person confident in herself and ready to take chances.”

“Maybe because I am a first-generation student I really thought I had to have a plan for everything. The most important thing I learned during my undergraduate experience at Virginia Tech is that things do not always go according to plan and may even be better without one. I now believe you should take advantage of any available time you have to try everything; it is never too late to start something new. I would not have had all of these great learning experiences if I had not been willing to go outside my comfort zone.”

This summer, Gomez will be attending MAT-DAT REU, the National Science Foundation-sponsored Research Experience for Undergraduates in Materials Engineering with Data Science at North Carolina State University. She also plans to pursue a Ph.D. after graduation to help fulfill her long-term goal of a career in materials engineering where she can focus on plant polysaccharides.

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