When Chrisula Stone came to Northern Kentucky University in 2016 as a part-time, non-traditional student, she had already crossed off many of the items on her bucket list. After raising a daughter, getting married and moving to Kentucky from the East Coast, it was time for her to work toward the bachelor’s degree that she hadn’t had the chance to finish.
Stone originally enrolled at Stony Brook University in New York right out of high school but decided not to continue there after a year and a half.
“I was undeclared at Stony Brook, and I think I was too young to know what I wanted,” Stone says. “I tried pre-nursing, but I didn’t really like the hospital environment. When my daughter graduated high school, I decided it would be a good time for me to come back and finish my education. It just made sense for me at the moment. NKU accepted all of my credits, so I came in at 38 as a sophomore.”
Though she considered other fields of study, Stone decided to pursue her passion for natural history and major in ecology and evolutionary biology. Her choice turned out to be the right one: Since 2016, she has expanded her two-page resume into a four-page CV, made valuable connections, and was named the 2022 recipient of the Society of Toxicology’s Undergraduate Research Award for her ongoing studies of tree swallows and mercury contamination. This year, she will complete her Bachelor of Science degree and represent the College of Arts and Sciences at this year’s December Commencement ceremony.
“It’s given me a lot of self-confidence that I didn’t have before. That was something I wasn’t expecting: confidence in my own ability to make good decisions."
She attributes a major part of her success as a student to her faculty mentor, Dr, Lindsey Walters. Stone has been volunteering as a nest box monitor with Kenton County Parks and Recreation since 2012, observing nesting birds. When she mentioned this work to others on campus, they would often ask if she’d met Walters, an expert on birds.
“I took her Introduction to Biology Lab course in 2017, and I asked her if she would be interested in checking out our nest boxes,” Stone says. “What ended up happening is that a really beautiful collaboration developed between NKU and Kenton County Parks. To this day, she and her students still do research in the park and check nest boxes. That has been really monumental for me.”
Walters would also help Stone develop her award-winning research project, which stemmed from an assignment in Dr. Christine Curran’s Advanced Writing in Biology class.
“Dr. Curran pushed me to come up with a novel, creative research proposal that wasn’t piggybacking on the work Dr. Walters had done,” Stone says. “I had to really think outside the box. I found myself just constantly being drawn to these interesting studies on mercury and birds. One of the species that I was familiar with working with was one of the birds that was used in studies on the effects of mercury. When I showed Dr. Walters my proposal, she took the time to read it and said, ‘You know, we could actually do this.’”
The research, which is still ongoing, examines the utility of collecting feathers from baby tree swallow nestlings to see if they could be routinely used as a way to gauge mercury uptake in the environment. Though similar studies had been conducted by other groups in the past on a smaller scale, Stone’s access to nest boxes allowed her to know ahead of time how many samples she could obtain and what she could do with them. Stone and Walters obtained funding for the project from the Wilson Ornithological Society’s Jed Burtt Mentoring Grant in 2020, as well as an NKU Student Undergraduate Research and Creativity (SURCA) award granted in 2019.
Stone says that her biggest challenge as a student was balancing full-time work with her class schedule.
“I’ve worked for Staples since 2004 doing operations support,” she says. “They’re supportive of higher education and have flexible scheduling programs. All I had to do was just show them my schedule and say, ‘I need this schedule for this semester,’ and they really worked with me. The solution was that I had multiple iterations of a schedule and worked at different times throughout the week.”
She adds that completing her degree validates her efforts and education at NKU.
“It’s given me a lot of self-confidence that I didn’t have before,” she says. “That was something I wasn’t expecting: confidence in my own ability to make good decisions. I've been here for seven years, so I've been able to make a lot of connections and take advantage of a lot of opportunities. I guess that's a bonus of going in the slow lane.”