At 26, Cameron Wilson was bartending to support her 3-year-old son, often missing milestone moments and still not earning enough to make ends meet, when she came to a pivotal realization: She needed to find another way to support her family.
She found inspiration in the forest, where she often foraged for morels, chanterelles and ramps to supplement her meager earnings.
“The more that I learned about foraging, the more that I realized there were all of these interactions occurring, and if I could maybe learn a little bit more about the interactions, I became a little bit better at foraging,” Wilson said. “So, I started doing my own research, and I realized that there was an entire biological sector of science dedicated to this exact thing. And the better I got at it and the more that I learned about it, I was like, ‘I could actually pursue this and do things to help out in the biological sciences, and specifically in Appalachia.’”
Now a graduate student at West Virginia University, Wilson is working toward that goal thanks to the Ruby Distinguished Doctoral Fellows program. The prestigious fellowship provides financial support to help doctoral-level scholars expand their studies and conduct research to benefit residents of West Virginia, the nation and the world.
Wilson said the opportunity has changed her life. And it’s already changing how her son, Liam, now 9, envisions his future.
“When he’s doing something and he gets really frustrated and wants to give up, it’s a lot easier for me to tell him, ‘Look, it takes a lot of hard work. You’re going to cry sometimes, and you’re going to be really upset, and you’re going to think you can’t do it. But, eventually, you’ll break through that,’” Wilson, who also has a 2-year-old son, Stephen, said. “And I hope that it impacts my youngest the same as it does him.”
A native of Buckhannon, Wilson graduated from Buckhannon-Upshur High School in 2008. She considered college at the time, but she was less motivated then and didn’t find much financial support available. In retrospect, she’s glad she waited; she likely would have majored in psychology, which she now realizes was not the right field for her.
Instead, Wilson worked a variety of jobs in food service, retail and child care. Years later, after struggling financially and briefly being homeless, she was referred to an adult learning program called SPOKES – Strategic Planning in Occupational Knowledge for Employment and Success. She sped through the course in just two weeks – less than half the expected completion time – and scored high on state tests, prompting her advisers to recommend higher education.
Wilson looked into nearby West Virginia Wesleyan University, where she discovered there was ample financial aid for non-traditional students and single mothers.
“As I got through it, I found out that I really did have a passion for all things ecology and environmental science,” Wilson said. “So, I sort of specialized in my undergrad in botanical studies, and I did much better than I ever expected to.”
Wilson attributes much of her success to mentor Katharine Gregg, professor emerita of biology, who provided one-on-one lessons in botanical studies and guided Wilson through her first research project. Gregg encouraged Wilson to go on to graduate school, but she had reservations.
Above: Watch a video feature on Cameron Wilson's path to WVU
“Basically, I had a four-year degree program in sight, and I was like, ‘OK, if I finish this, I’ll come out with X amount of loans, and I can work another 10 years with just a bachelor’s degree and I can work those loans down and in the long run, it’ll be worth it,’” Wilson said. “The thought of adding any more debt on top of that was just astronomical. I couldn’t even think about it. So, being offered the Ruby really opened up that door to me to be able to come here and not have to worry about racking up debt and actually pursuing something and making a difference.”
Established by the Hazel Ruby McQuain Charitable Trust in 2011, the Ruby fellowship provides a $34,000 stipend, a $2,000 travel grant and tuition waiver to each recipient to allow them to continue their research at WVU. Recipients must be nominated by a faculty member or program and pursuing a doctorate in a science, technology, engineering or math field.
Wilson is completing her PhD work with Matthew Kasson, associate professor of forest pathology and mycology, at WVU’s Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design. Kasson’s lab focuses on fungi’s role in the ecosystem, biocontrol potential for select fungi and fungal interactions with other organisms.
Wilson said one of the benefits of the Ruby fellowship is its power to attract promising researchers and pique their interest in addressing some of West Virginia’s greatest challenges. Her dream job is to work in bioremediation, which involves using naturally occurring biological resources to resolve environmental issues such as oil spills and contamination from old mine sites. Mycoremediation, involving the use of mushrooms, is a growing subfield that has captured her interest.
Wilson acknowledged that attending college while raising a family is sometimes difficult. Her longtime partner, Steve, has provided tremendous support, but she often must make tough decisions to sacrifice family or study time to meet her goals.
The generous financial support provided by the Ruby fellowship has helped her to reconsider what’s possible.
“This has made such a difference in my life,” Wilson said. “This opened up a door that I never thought I would be able to get through. The idea of graduating from Buckhannon-Upshur and now I’m pursuing a PhD is just incredible to me. Most people can’t believe I’ve come this far, and some days I wake up and I don’t really believe I made it this far. But, without this funding, it would have been impossible.”
The Ruby Distinguished Doctoral Fellows program is named for Hazel Ruby McQuain, a dedicated benefactor of WVU for more than 20 years before her passing in 2002 at the age of 93. One of her many gifts includes an $8 million gift towards the construction of J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital, which is named after her late husband.
Funding for the Ruby Distinguished Doctoral Fellows program is awarded through the WVU Foundation, the nonprofit organization that receives and administers private donations on behalf of the University.