It’s all about STEM for Ph.D. student Karson Brooks.
By Cynthia Adams / Photos by Nancy Evelyn
Karson Brooks is an unconventional, brainy beauty who has competed in beauty pageants, but one with solid scholastic credentials who is on her way toward a doctorate in chemistry. Although she just began graduate studies a year ago, Brooks can as readily discuss polymer molecules and nanotechnologies as she can chat about good books, recipes or Pinterest.
Her love affair with science began her senior year of high school in advanced placement chemistry. But it was a rocky start. "I used to cry all the time until I figured it out," Brooks admits with a laugh. While attending the Dean's Research Award reception during her first year, she talked about her love of science. "I think my mom had a lot to do with that. She always taught me that I should want to be intelligent over beautiful because beauty eventually fades."
The Montgomery, Alabama, native joined Alpha Omicron Pi while an undergraduate at the University of Alabama. Brooks speculates that she was possibly the only one among her sorority members who completed a chemistry degree. She was a high-achieving undergraduate who made outstanding grades, enabling her to graduate summa cum laude.
Karson Brooks "I never actually got teased for being smart in school," she says. "I think I got teased more when someone got a higher grade than me on an assignment, which always drove me crazy. I think I just owned being smart. And if kids thought that was weird or uncool, I didn't really care because that's what I needed to be."
At Alabama, she joined research projects and got her work published, soon on her way to becoming a scientist. Brooks had an opportunity to work on a research project at Pennsylvania State University as part of her undergraduate experiences.
While there, she visited Dow Chemical Company. "At Dow, I saw firsthand how an industrial laboratory functioned. The experience was extremely different from my expectations. I was fascinated by the company labs and by the fact that everyday chemists are developing new products and technology to make our lives better."
In 2014, she received the national Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, which is based on intellectual merits and grade point average. (She was on the President's List at Alabama for eight consecutive semesters.) "Of the 14,000 that applied for it, 2,000 got it," Brooks says with quiet pride.
But this future chemist was one who had beauty pageant experiences as well.
"I love dressing up and being girly, but I also want women to have the same opportunities as men. I think we can definitely have both."
Whatever she did, Brooks proved she was in to win. All of which drew comparisons with Reese Witherspoon's character, Elle Woods, in the lighthearted comedy "Legally Blonde." The film portrays Woods as a stereotypical sorority sister who prizes her fashion sense and privileged lifestyle. But the character proves her abilities as a law student, ultimately shattering the stereotypes. Brooks also broke with stereotypes.
"I actually did get compared to Elle Woods as a kid," Brooks says. "I wanted to be a lawyer for the longest time as a kid because of that movie." Brooks' pageant experience was confined to merely two competitions, Brooks clarifies. "I was in my high school pageant. But I didn't win anything."
Yet that didn't exactly discourage her, either.
"I was also in Houston County's Junior Miss (which now is America's Distinguished Young Women). I didn't win; however, I did place in scholastic achievement (grades, ACT score, etc.)."
Brooks' pageant talent was a comedic monologue, which placed her in the top eight contestants. Brooks also won the essay contest, and still remembers the topic. "The prompt was, 'describe a time in which you were your best self.'"
Brooks must have been a gracious, congenial loser. "I was named Miss Congeniality, voted on by my fellow 28 contestants."
But the real bonus was that Brooks received $3,200 in a cash scholarship from her pageant experience, "which helped tremendously with buying books, class fees, etc." She took the money and headed for the science lab-not another stage.
"After that, I hung up my pageant dresses, but I have always been a fan of the Miss America organization since I was a little girl, especially the organization's platform of empowering women in the STEM fields." (STEM includes science, technology, engineering and mathematics.)
Brooks entered Graduate School at UGA in June 2013. She is the recipient of several other fellowships from the University of Georgia, and is a Presidential Fellow, which is the highest fellowship given to incoming graduate students. Due to her undergraduate degree in chemistry, a STEM discipline, she was selected for the 2013 UGA bridge program. The summer program, sponsored by the Graduate School, allowed her to begin her research early.
She began her UGA research in Jason Locklin's lab, studying surface-initiated polymerization and post-polymerization modifications of surfaces. Working closely with a mentor, Brooks is learning the methods and protocols of developing polymer brushes.
She plans to complete her doctorate in 2018. "Ideally, I want to make consumer products. I want to do something that has a practical application."
— This story originally appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of the Graduate School Magazine.