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Top of the Class: For valedictorians who moved away, hearts remain in New Hampshire

  • From left: Allison Harris (John Stark 2011), Michael Dubreuil (John Stark 2009) and Marissa Lynn (Bow High 2009). —Courtesy photos

  • Michael Dubreuil —Courtesy

  • Marissa Lynn —Courtesy

  • Allison Harris

Monitor staff
Published: 8/31/2019 3:27:23 PM

Growing up in the hills of Henniker near Pats Peak, Michael Dubreuil was naturally drawn to the outdoors. As a kid and into his teenage years, Dubreuil ventured into the woods across the street from his home, stone-stepping across Chase Brook and examining the endlessly diverse mix of trees in the forest.

These experiences not only led Dubreuil to develop an unwavering love for his home state – it also played a part in setting him on a path to studying the natural world, particularly biology.

Dubreuil graduated as John Stark’s valedictorian in 2009, and went on to study biology at Cornell with a concentration in genetics. He’s now completed six years of graduate studies at Stanford and will defend his thesis – on “the identification of genetic modulators of oxidative stress sensitivity in human cells” – in September.

While Dubreuil misses New Hampshire and longs for the green hills of his home town, he doesn’t see a return to the Granite State in his future, at least not anytime soon. The reason is pretty simple: the opportunities for a career in biotech are far more slim in New Hampshire than a major hub like the San Francisco Bay Area – where Dubreuil lives now – or even Boston.

It’s a question state officials and others in New Hampshire have pondered for years: As the population here grows older, how does the state attract and retain more young, bright minds to settle down here?

The Monitor reached out to several past valedictorians from school districts in the capital region to see where they are now. They shared a variety of stories about their paths from high school through college and into their careers.

As the school year starts again for high schools and colleges, the voices of these valedictorians give a glimpse of where some of the state’s best and brightest wind up a decade after graduation.

While some have stayed in New Hampshire or eventually returned, the majority of the 19 valedictorians interviewed for the “Top of the Class” series are living in places far from the Granite State, for reasons both professional and personal.

Allison Harris, another John Stark graduate and valedictorian, left New Hampshire to study systems engineering at the University of Virginia. She now works in Washington D.C. as a consultant for Deloitte and plans to stay because most of her work is with federal agencies.

Marissa Lynn, who graduated at the top of her class from Bow High in 2009, recently completed medical school at Harvard and is working in Minneapolis. She’s getting married next summer and said that, while she misses New Hampshire, Minnesota will be home for the foreseeable future.

‘I always miss New Hampshire’

When the time came to decide where he’d attend college, Dubreuil’s choices were UNH and Cornell, in Ithaca, New York. He knew he wanted to study biology – it had emerged as his favorite course in high school, along with physics and chemistry.

He says the decision between state school and the Ivy League was harder than one might expect.

“It was a really tough decision, actually,” he said. “There are a lot of things I really loved about UNH. It has really strong research and it’s one of these schools that has three different kinds of grant research through the federal government. Cornell also has all three, but you know, they’re both very strong research institutions. In the end, Cornell was about the same price and it was a new area.”

Dubreuil, 27, earned his degree in biology with a concentration in genetics in three and a half years. He spent the next semester doing research before heading to Stanford, where he has spent the last six years studying in the cancer biology department and expanding his professional network in the Bay Area.

The next step, he said, is finding a job.

“I have a good network here that I built up over grad school, and there’s a lot of jobs here,” he said. “Boston is another hub for biotech, so potentially I’ll expand outward. But since I am here and I have connections I can work with, it’s easier to look for a job here.”

But he still thinks of home.

“I always miss New Hampshire,” he said. “The problem is New Hampshire does have biotech but it’s a little more spread out. There just aren’t as many opportunities, whereas here in the Bay Area there’s a new startup every month in the biotech field.”

While he’s away, the forest where he spent years exploring remains. An easement by Five Rivers Conservation Trust was placed in 2009 on the 61-acre wooded area in Henniker, including a portion of Chase Brook.

“I was over the moon that we’d actually be able to preserve that just really awesome natural landscape,” Dubreuil said.

‘Discipline and determination’

Allison Harris was a busy high school student at John Stark. She made it a priority to seek the help of her teachers when she had questions about assignments. Both her parents were teachers and helped keep her on track with rules around when to study and when to go have fun with her friends.

It may have been frustrating at the time, but Harris, who now works as an engineering consultant in Washington, D.C., says it was worth it.

“In the moment I probably wanted to play with my friends after school or watch TV, but I would say it instilled some level of discipline and determination that has really carried on throughout my life,” she said. “I think it’s what has allowed me to succeed and achieve the goals I’ve wanted.”

Harris, who is from Weare, graduated as valedictorian of John Stark’s 2011 class. A member of the French Honor Society and the National Honor Society, she was also a year-round athlete in high school with a focus on soccer and basketball. She played AAU basketball her freshman and sophomore years.

Harris says she didn’t visit too many colleges before applying, except for the campuses she saw while playing in AAU tournaments. She said she was “set on going to Duke” after visiting the North Carolina campus during a tournament but ultimately never applied.

“I think my father expected me to go to UNH, and didn’t see me going anywhere else until I started to actually get into other schools that were really good,” she said. “I think that kind of opened up his mind.”

Harris has deep roots in Durham – her grandmother was a college athlete at UNH. But Harris opted for the University of Virginia, a school with a much larger student population than she thought she wanted to be in. It also had an engineering program that she believed would set her on the best course.

“I knew I enjoyed physics and math, which led me to engineering,” she said. “I also wanted to put myself in a position where I could graduate and easily get a job, so engineering seemed like a really good option.”

Harris completed a pair of internships in Washington, D.C., and started working there right after graduating. She’s lived there four years now and has developed an affection for the city.

“I was in a policy internship program working in the federal government and learning about how science and technology policy work in the area, and I really enjoyed it,” she said.

Working with government agencies, almost all of Harris’s work is based in the Capital, so she doesn’t see herself leaving. If she did, she’d likely have to travel for work four days a week.

“I’ve been in D.C. for four years, and it’s amazing,” she said. “It’s a really fun city.”

Heart in New Hampshire

Marissa Lynn turned down the opportunity to go to St. Paul’s School, where her mother worked in the school library, to stay home and attend classes with her friends at Bow High. She went on to graduate at the top of her class in 2009.

When the time came to decide where she’d attend college, Lynn, again, didn’t want to go too far away. She applied early decision to Dartmouth, which meant that when she was accepted, she was locked in.

And that was fine with her.

“I didn’t want to leave the Northeast,” she said, adding that farthest she looked was Northwestern, where her father graduated. “I think everyone at Dartmouth and then (later) at Harvard knew me as strongly attached to New Hampshire and very much loving the state in which I grew up.”

Lynn, who is 28, now lives in Minneapolis where she works as an associate for McKinsey & Company. She said she still feels connected to the Granite State, recalling the orientation hiking trip she took with fellow classmates before her freshman year at Dartmouth.

“We did a hike on Franconia Ridge and just seeing people who had never lived in New Hampshire before experiencing kind of the natural beauty of Franconia,” she said. “I think that was really special to me, as someone who grew up here, watching my classmates fall in love with the state.”

Lynn graduated from Dartmouth with a degree in biology. She also minored in Asian and Middle Eastern studies, which stemmed from following news reports of the Arab Spring. She studied abroad in Morocco and Barcelona.

She earned a Fulbright scholarship and taught English in South Korea for a year. She stuck with Fulbright for a second year in South Korea and worked as a program coordinator.

Lynn was then accepted to Harvard Medical School and completed her studies last spring. Now, she is weighing whether she wants to go into clinical practice or work in insurance advocating for better health care access.

“I’m going to be doing a lot of insurance work for McKinsey, because one of the things that I found as a general trend throughout medical school, and then a major frustration, was how insurance certainly impacts patients’ access to care and dictates very much how medicine is practiced in the United States, so I wanted to get exposure to the insurance industry,” she said.

It’s a problem she noticed while working in Boston when patients from rural northern New England would visit because they could not find proper care closer to home.

“I’ve seen there is a pretty significant difference in access to care for people living in the Boston area versus, say, Northern New Hampshire,” she said. “A lot of times we would see patients coming down from Northern New Hampshire, northern Maine, presenting much later to care because of lack of access in northern parts of those states. I think that’s an issue that would be near and dear to my heart, but I don’t know how that will play out for me in the future. I would be interested in helping increase health care outcomes in the state.”

For now, Lynn is staying in Minnesota.

“I’m engaged to a Minnesotan, and he feels very strongly about the state of Minnesota like I do the state of New Hampshire,” she said.

But when the wedding bells ring next summer, they’ll be in New Hampshire.

(Nick Stoico can be reached at nstoico@cmonitor.com.)




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