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Top of the Class: For MVHS grads, the future is in research

  • Newell Moser, valedictorian for Merrimack Valley High School's Class of 2009, sits on a pathway at Northwestern University in Chicago.

  • Merrimack Valley High School Class of 2010 valedictorian Caitlin Kowalski extracts data from a fungal sample while working at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College. Courtesy photos

  • Merrimack Valley High School Class of 2011 valedictorian Morgan Matthews (left) and her partner Matt Latorella hike Devil’s Lake State Park in Baraboo, Wis. with their goldendoodle Appa.

Monitor staff 
Published: 9/1/2019 9:00:16 PM

All three of Merrimack Valley High School’s recent valedictorians had different experiences growing up but they share a goal for the future.

One grew up on a defunct dairy farm. Another spent her free time making flower arrangements for her mother’s floral shop. Another always talked with her family about human health at the dinner table.

All three are now pursuing doctoral degrees, and they all want to use their degree to continue doing research. Yes, as they attain higher, more specialized levels of education, their job prospects back in New Hampshire become even slimmer.

They are part of a growing trend of graduates pursuing advanced degrees after college as the number of people with a mater’s or a doctoral degree has doubled from 2000 and 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. About 21 million Americans have a master’s degree, up from 10.4 million in 2000; and 4.5 million hold a doctoral degree, up from 2 million in 2000. 

Counting all post-undergrad degrees about 13.1 percent of U.S. adults have an advanced degree, up from 8.6 percent in 2000, according to the Census.

And it’s not just older people going back to school. The percentage of 25- to 29-year-olds with a master’s or higher degree increased from 5% to 9% from 2000 to 2017, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Of the 19 valedictorians the Monitor interviewed for “Top of the Class,” about half have earned or are pursuing masters or doctoral degrees.

Newell Moser, Caitlin Kowalski and Morgan Matthews – valedictorians for MVHS in 2009, 2010 and 2011, respectively – were some of the last students at MVHS to be dubbed valedictorians after the school phased the designation out in favor of Latin honors during the 2016-2017 school year.

They all said they pursued advanced degrees because of an interest in research. Their programs also covered their tuition – and in some cases, provided a stipend – making the decision to continue their education accessible and affordable.

But they don’t see much of a future for their degrees in New Hampshire.

“I love New Hampshire, that’s why I’m still here,” said Kowalski, who does research at Dartmouth. “If I didn’t like it I would have chosen a different place. But the job opportunities for my field are limited. I feel like that’s ultimately why myself and other people leave the state.”

‘The last thing I wantto do is be bored’

Newell Moser said his first car, a 1989 GMC Suburban, was given to him on a tow truck to fix. It was the only way he’d get a car to drive to school, his family told him.

He replaced the brakes and fixed the engine over four months to gain his own ride to school.

That was one of his first instances in the mechanical engineering field for Moser, 28, a Loudon native currently six years into a doctorate in philosophy and mechanical engineering.

He said the work ethic needed to fix the truck was prevalent throughout his life – growing up as one of four children in a working-class family on a former dairy farm meant “if you want something, you have to work for it,” he said.

“Nowhere was it ever forgotten that the work ethic was necessary,” he said.

Moser ended up studying electrical engineering at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, the only logical choice for his family financially, he said. As graduation approached in 2013, he realized two things: he had a knack for solving academic problems and he wasn’t ready to go into the industry.

That led to him making an 18-hour cross-country trip to Northwestern University in Chicago to further his education. He was $2,000 in credit card debt, had an unreliable vehicle (a different truck), and had never used a subway. He was a little scared.

“I was pursuing a program I wasn’t sure I was good enough to do,” he said. “But I thought if there’s any time to screw up in your life, the best time is to do it early.”

Moser’s tuition is covered by the National Science Foundation. It’s an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 that funds federally supported basic research at American colleges and universities. They also provide him a stipend.

That full boat was “absolutely” an incentive, Moser said. And after six years, he said he’s on track to complete his degree this fall. From there, he plans to head to a national lab in Boulder, Colo., for a two-year post-doctoral fellowship to do additional research.

From there, he’s not sure – but opportunities to use his degree in rural areas like New Hampshire are slim. He’s also leery of getting into anything where he might end up being overqualified.

“I’ve heard of too many people going into these industries and getting bored,” he said. “The last thing I want to do is be bored.”

A competitive field

For Caitlin Kowalski, growing up meant her pharmacist father leading conversations about health and medicine around the dinner table.

She had no interest in being a doctor. But the life sciences were interesting to Kowalski, 27, currently in her fifth year of researching human fungal pathogens for her doctorate at Dartmouth College.

Kowalski said she took every bioscience class she could at Merrimack Valley. But it wasn’t until her junior year at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass., after an internship with Vertex Pharmaceuticals, that she realized what she really wanted to do: run her own research lab.

“That put me on the trajectory to where I am now,” she said.

It didn’t hurt that Kowalski was able to combine her master’s and doctorate degree at Dartmouth, which she said she chose for its competitive program and affordability.

Kowalski’s research, tuition, health insurance and a living stipend are all paid for by the National Institutes of Health, a medical research agency run through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She expects to finish her degree in the spring of 2020.

“It’s a really good deal,” Kowalski said. 

Kowalski is one of four children and said being as close to her family as possible was a big draw for her college and post-grad decisions.

But she thinks she’ll have to go further afield once she gets her advanced degree, which means a new lab, a new project. It’s necessary, she said, to be competitive.

“I’ve already been in school for nine years,” she said. “You don’t want to stay in the same place where you did your Ph.D. The canon is that you should diversify and go to a different institution if you can.”

 ‘The work I do is kindof everywhere’

Morgan Matthews remembers working in a bakery to help her older sister, Monica, get through college.

Matthews, 25, is one of four children. Her mother owned a florist shop that the family lived above, and her father is a material engineer in Massachusetts. It was often “all hands on deck” to make the family business work – Matthews remembers long days spent at her mother’s vegetable stand and designing floral arrangements for the Hopkinton State Fair. School holidays meant trips home from her undergraduate studies at Dartmouth College to help out during the busy season.

She didn’t mind, though; family is important to Matthews, and was a big part of why she strove to attend Dartmouth.

“My mom told me that education is the one thing no one can take away from you,” she said. “...What you work for in your education is what you’ll be able to hold onto.”

It wasn’t just family, Matthews said: She always wanted to attend Dartmouth after reading a book when she was young. And when a counselor at the St. Paul’s School Advanced Summer Program told her Dartmouth was likely out of reach, her resolved doubled.

Wherever she went, finances were going to be part of the equation. “The financial factor was huge for me,” she said. “Part of why I worked so hard was so I could go to a school that supported me.”

Her work scored her a scholarship that covered her tuition. Matthews was the only MVHS student she knew at Dartmouth, so her family’s backing was extra important.

“Even when my family struggled to support me financially, their love was a lifeline to me during the most difficult times in college,” she said.

Matthews is currently studying to get a Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Wisconsin’s Madison campus, where she lives with her partner, Matt Latorella, and their goldendoodle, Appa. Her graduate program is fully funded, and she has worked as a teaching assistant at the school.

Leaving her family was difficult, but Matthews said her father was from the Badger State, and she had always wanted to explore life outside of New Hampshire. She has two more years to finish her dissertation and hopes to become a professor.

She wants to come back to the area, but thinks landing in greater New England is more feasible than New Hampshire. She’s not sure what kinds of teaching jobs would be available in the Granite State by the time she’s done.

“The work I do is kind of everywhere,” she said. “So I’m not limited in that sense. It’s more limited in the sense that there’s not a lot of jobs.”

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