In its 10 years’ existence, the University of Mary Washington’s Honors Program has frequently been recognized for excellence. But one accolade was elusive: having a student earn the Virginias Collegiate Honors Council Scholar of the Year award.
That milestone is now achieved. Hannah Harris ’23 is this year’s winner of the top award for collegiate honors program students in Virginia and West Virginia. The VCHC presented the award at its annual conference, held April 14 and 15 at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia.
UMW Honors Program co-directors Kelli Slunt, professor of chemistry, and Mara Scanlon, professor of English, nominated Harris for the VCHC Scholar of the Year award with high confidence that she could win.
A biochemistry and English literature double major headed to medical school in the fall, Harris had lived the Honors Program ideals of academic excellence, leadership and intellectual curiosity for four years at UMW. But she faced keen competition for the award from finalists representing nine other colleges and universities.
In mid-March, Harris learned she would receive the honor – finding out on the fourth anniversary of the Destination Day event at which, as a high school senior from Botetourt County near Roanoke, she’d committed to attending UMW as an Honors Program student.
Harris’ passions for the biochemical sciences and English literature speak to her academic creativity. Her capstone honors project, supervised by Professor of English Eric Lorentzen, was a study of the scientific concept of entropy – the randomness and chaos of a system – as represented in British Victorian literature.
She’s also done four years of undergraduate research in an ongoing project supervised by Associate Professor of Chemistry Davis Oldham, studying toxicity of plastic compounds called phthalates. Harris developed a method of synthesizing the different forms, called enantiomers, of various phthalate molecules and their metabolites, then using a protein model to test how they interact with the human body.
Harris has demonstrated leadership at UMW, chairing the Honors Student Advisory Council, helping coordinate the trademarked City as Text program for incoming Honors Program students, and working on campus as a Washington Tour Guide. Off campus, she volunteered with the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps during the height of the Covid pandemic and release of vaccines, and she also volunteers with Mary Washington Hospital.
“The common thread running through all I have done in college has been my desire to attend medical school and become an ethical, caring, and competent physician,” Harris wrote in a personal statement to the VCHC.
Mary Washington’s Honors Program helped her advance that goal via its early selection agreement with the George Washington University School of Medicine. Harris was provisionally accepted two years ago, saving her the uncertainty, time and expense of applying to multiple medical schools, she said.
Slunt and Scanlon describe Harris not only as an exemplary Honors student but as a communicator willing to use her knowledge and talents for the common good.
“Hannah is the type of student you love to have in class. She excels in her courses and has advanced insight and critical analysis skills,” Slunt said. “Blending this with her expert ability to analyze the literature of great writers outside of STEM, you find a well-rounded, intelligent scholar who will be able to communicate well with others.”
Scanlon added, “Hannah’s ability to bridge literary studies and physical science, and to bring to both fields passion and insight, speaks to her rare mind. Even more rare is her generosity and willingness to give of her time, energy, skills, and humor. … Hannah has been a gift to the Honors Program, as we know she will be to all communities she touches.”