Heather M. Nelson
Whether she’s scrutinizing spawning salmon on Kodiak Island or devising a better snack on the UGA campus, Heather M. Nelson never lacks grit. She’s at her best when challenged and treats scholastics as a personal adventure.
Heather Nelson’s story reads like a quirky film script. If she were the subject of such a movie, imagine a spunky Jody Foster (who Nelson resembles) having an intellectual awakening in the heartland where dairy and football rule. Then imagine Foster leaving a place she loved for academic adventuring. How did this happen?
It happened because Nelson is both smart and scrappy. She graduated from a class of only 40 in rural Wisconsin where her entrepreneurial parents taught Nelson to admire independence of thought and spirit. With a nudge from her mother, she left the quiet landscape she loves.
Most of the folks in Hillsboro, Wisconsin (population 1,302) figured Nelson would one day take over the family’s successful restaurant and bar. Nelson assumed the same thing. Working in the restaurant during holidays and summers felt comfortable and Nelson admired her mother’s success.
“I didn’t want to go to college,” admits the new PhD, who graduated last December. One day her mother made it clear she expected her daughter to get an education before making final decisions.
With her family’s encouragement Nelson left her small town for the University of Wisconsin in Stout. Back in Hillsboro, family and friends teased the easy-going tomboy about her growing interest in academia. Soon Nelson shifted her major from chemistry to food science, with the restaurant in mind. On campus, professors and advisors noticed her scholarship and natural leadership and how dauntless she seemed.
In 2001, a professor proposed that Nelson go to Kodiak Island in Alaska for independent work and study in a salmon processing plant. From that point forward, events nudged Nelson further up the academic chain, propelling her onward.
Finding New Frontiers
The prospect of hardship didn’t faze Nelson; in fact, it excited her. She signed on for the Alaskan experience in 2001 without reservation. She phoned her new landlords and questioned them about local life. They mentioned dirt roads and little civilization. She knew no one in the entire state, but she was 21 and ready for an adventure.
She got one, Nelson recalls and laughs. “I packed for Kodiak like I was going on a camping trip.” By May, she was off to work at Alaska Pacific Seafoods, and wouldn’t return until August.
When Nelson arrived in the outpost south of Anchorage she faced three work-filled months. Nelson worked seven days a week and had no time for sightseeing. A graduated cylinder and a clipboard were Nelson’s constant companions as she counted and recorded spawning salmon, measuring the flow rates of the water.
“The more females there are, the closer they are to the end of spawning,” she explains. Nelson carefully recorded how many of the salmon had eggs, as 55 percent meant the season was almost over. “The plant did so many things, including exporting salmon eggs to Japan and producing pouched and frozen salmon.” Nelson’s other jobs included quality assurance and devising recipes for the company’s salmon.
The Alaska that Nelson discovered was the quirky place typified by fact and fiction. “It was a little like (television’s) Northern Exposure. But there was no moose wandering the streets.”
Nelson’s only dread was of an unwelcome bear encounter. “I saw one bear, but that was because we actually went looking for it. We got on a floatplane and went looking for salmon and happened to see a bear.” Nelson hopes to return one day as a tourist.
“I really want to go back. My parents came and did all the tourist stuff. I didn’t get to do too much,” she recalls. Yet the Alaskan experience energized Nelson so much that she considered returning there for graduate school. After completing her master’s degree, a roommate encouraged her onward. The family business still loomed in her mind, but she applied to UGA at her advisor’s suggestion.
“A (UGA) professor named Rakesh Singh, looked at my application. I was admitted and found out the school started on the 15th. I realized I had two weeks to move.” Nelson drove more than 1,000 miles to Athens in a Dodge Intrepid with her dad and a family friend following closely behind in a U-Haul truck. As their small convoy entered the town of Athens, Nelson knew she had made the right choice. She settled in immediately and thrived.
She kept close to pet projects throughout her doctoral studies. For three years she judged for the Science Olympiad, a national science fair competition. Nelson cooperatively developed the Olympiad food science event, giving teachers and coaches ideas for teaching food science, and taught Olympiad coaches’ clinics.
“The first food science class I took I was a little obsessed,” Nelson jokes. Her competitive side worked to her advantage.
“This big organization, the Institute of Food Technologists, has a competition for new food products,” she says. Her student team developed fruit chips, a hybrid tortilla chip with fruit purée. “They were actually pretty good. We called them Frips— Frip chips.”
Nelson’s UGA advisor asked her to organize a student branch of ASHRAE (American Society for Heating, Refrigeration, and Air- Conditioning Engineers) on campus alongside the Graduate School’s Dean Maureen Grasso and engineering professor Tom Lawrence.
“Once this was up and running I took a go at starting a student branch of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA),” she says.
Lining Up Her Next Shot
Nelson was selected for the Graduate School’s Future Leadership Conference in 2005, where she solidified pursuing research over academic administration. “It was a good experience. I was happy to have been chosen.” Nelson maintains contact with people she met there, saying the conference gave her a perspective she had lacked.
Nelson received a number of grant awards from outside of UGA and also a graduate assistantship. A student researcher depends upon these awards she emphasizes, saying, “It’s hard enough to do it with assistance.” Awards from the Graduate School enabled Nelson to present research and participate in coaches’ clinics for Science Olympiad.
In January, Nelson joined the research and development department at Beam Global Spirits and Wine in Clermont, Kentucky. Beam and Titleist are among the famous corporate holdings of Fortune Brands. Naturally, the Titleist connection delights the golfer in Nelson.
This year, Nelson will travel back to Wisconsin for her 10th high school reunion. So far she’s the only PhD in her graduating class and, at 27, the youngest. Her boyfriend will receive his doctorate from UGA this May in food science as well.
“He may go to work for a rival,” Nelson says with a grin that suggests the competitive young scholar will welcome this challenge, too.
An avid golfer, Nelson sinks a shot whenever she’s not in the labs at her new research job in Clermont, Kentucky. “I have to stress that I love to golf, and I am not good at it,” Nelson insists. “My handicap is about 20 to 25 so I usually score about 100 on 18 holes. Not good!”