Hannah Merges ’21 and Nicole Schmalbach ’21

2021 Senior Alumni Award

About Hannah Merges ’21

With plans to launch a career in coral reef ecology, conservation, and restoration, Hannah Merges ’21 maximized her Ursinus opportunities and was given the independence to create her own experiences to prepare for her future.

“I knew I wanted to study environmental science in college, so I started on that path right away in the first semester of freshman year,” said Merges, who minored in anthropology and, thanks, in large part, to her initiative in creating a new academic program, minored in marine science. “I followed that with internships and research and worked towards creating the marine science minor for the college.”

Merges’ scholastic and hands-on learning experiences have positioned her for impactful work in the marine science field. The summer before her sophomore year, she participated in a Research Experience for Undergraduates internship, which solidified her passion for being near the water and for pursuing a research path. She was a microbiology research intern at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore studying blue crabs and also completed a science communication internship at the Institute on Science for Global Policy (ISGP). At ISGP, she co-hosted an episode of the science podcast The Forum and spoke about “Great Barriers for the Reefs” with former executive producer and co-host Aubrey Paris ’15.

As a research assistant for Dr. Kathryn Goddard, associate professor of biology, Merges studied how pollution drives evolution in the species of fish, Fundulus heteroclitus. Advised by Goddard for her honors research project, Merges designed and began a lab study looking at the effects of different environmental conditions on a type of cold-water coral.

“I am confident in my abilities to address complex problems, hold leadership positions, and ultimately excel in my field in the type of meaningful work that I hope to achieve,” said Merges, who will earn a bachelor of science degree with top academic honors.

Merges’ contributions to Ursinus students, faculty, and staff on campus are widespread. Fluent in Spanish, she was an English as a Second Language tutor for Ursinus cleaning staff. A Fellow for the Parlee Center for Science and the Common Good, she assisted in organizing multiple speaker events on prominent topics in science and policy. She also tutored students in the Center for Writing and Speaking and was a teaching assistant for the Freedom, Citizenship, and Equality program for high school students. One of her most rewarding experiences during her time as a Bear was participating in the social justice and service-oriented Bonner Program.

“The dedication to community service, committed discussions about social justice and diversity, and the relationships that I have formed with other Bonners and my community partners have deeply shaped my career aspirations and personal goals,” said Merges, who devoted more than 300 hours per year to community service and discussing social justice issues while an undergraduate.

Navigating her future, Merges is a semi-finalist for a Fulbright Scholarship and hopes to continue work focused on corals and its interrelationship with human communities prior to pursuing graduate school.

“Hannah’s intellectual abilities, natural curiosity, drive, and work ethic will help her progress in her career goals of protecting coral reef ecosystems and the communities that rely on them,” said Leah Joseph, associate professor of environmental studies, who nominated Merges for the Senior Alumni Award. “Her strong social skills will assist with creating positive relationships and forging important collaborations, and her dedication, positive attitude, and enthusiasm will help her lead strong teams to work towards solving environmental problems as well as face and conquer challenges that may arise within her path.”


About Nicole Schmalbach ’21

As a child in New Jersey, Nicole Schmalbach ’21 always felt that it was in her best interest to care for others. Growing up, she became involved in service projects and gave back to the community. When she arrived at Ursinus, she immediately embodied the college’s charge to lead a life of purpose and professional achievement. A chemistry major with neuroscience and art history minors, Schmalbach excelled in the classroom and lab, in leadership roles, and in helping to build a better society. Her next step is to attend medical school and possibly become an emergency medicine physician.

“I wanted to look back on my time at Ursinus and be able to say to myself that I tried a little of everything and learned something from each of those experiences,” said Schmalbach, who received the American Chemical Society Award in Analytical Chemistry and the Chemistry Laboratory Technique Award during her junior year.

Very engaged in student activities that uplifted others, she was the community outreach liaison for the Minority Association of Pre-Health Students, an Ursinus College ambassador, an academic coach, and a peer tutor. She also spent two rewarding alternate spring break trips helping to build homes in South Carolina for Habitat for Humanity. Serving in many leadership roles, she was president of Women in Technology and Science and the Beardwood Chemical Society; vice president of Students Today, Alumni Tomorrow; and treasurer of Nu Rho Psi, the neuroscience honor society.

Looking back at her academic experiences, she credits Brian Pfennig, assistant professor of chemistry, as being one of her biggest influencers. Working with Pfennig in the Inorganic Chemistry Research Lab for three years, they examined metal-ligand charge transfers in supramolecular coordination compounds to demonstrate long-lived charged separated states.

“Research has definitely opened a new window of interest in my life. While I plan to pursue medicine following my time at Ursinus, I am more interested in doing research in addition to practicing medicine now,” said Schmalbach, who also served as Pfennig’s teaching assistant for his CHEM 151 Advanced General Chemistry class and led weekly group study sessions for chemistry students for three semesters.

“Ursinus’s chemistry department has changed my life! I never would have thought I would be a chemistry major, but the resources and sense of family the department have provided are amazing,” said Schmalbach, who will graduate summa cum laude with a bachelor of science degree.

“I can’t think of a better nominee [for the Senior Alumni Award] in my 17 years at Ursinus,” said Pfennig, who is advising Schmalbach on her senior thesis honors research project.

Looking to what is ahead for her, Schmalbach knows that she will always be a Bear at heart.

“I am forever grateful for the times and memories I have had on this campus,” she said. “The close-knit community that I have formed with friends, professors, and faculty members will always be held close. As an alumna, I know I will be there to support and mentor the next generations of Bears.”








Q&A with Hannah Merges ’21 and Nicole Schmalbach ’21

Why was getting involved important to you as an Ursinus student?

Hannah: Being an involved member in my community is important to me because I value building relationships and connections with people. Starting in freshman year, I knew getting involved would push me out of my comfort zone and allow me to learn more about myself and others in my community. The various groups I have been involved with and the people that I have met through these organizations have helped me grow both personally and academically. Not only have I been exposed to different perspectives and experiences, but I have developed new skills and balanced a rigorous schedule. I have so many different interests, and I am grateful that Ursinus provided me with the space and opportunity to explore them.

Nicole: Ursinus was a new start for me—new people, new place, and I wanted to make new friends and new experiences. I followed my passions, whether that was in academic organizations or a short stint playing intramural badminton, to really make the most of my time here at Ursinus. I wanted to look back on my time at Ursinus and be able to say to myself that I tried a little of everything, and learned something from each of those experiences.

What is your proudest UC moment?

Hannah: I am not sure I have just one stand-out, proudest Ursinus moment, though self-initiating the Marine Science minor, my Honors Research, and being a semi-finalist for Fulbright are certainly up there. I am proud of how much I have accomplished and how much I have challenged myself over these last four years. I have grown in numerous ways and learned new skills that will carry me far in life both in and out of the classroom. Ursinus has taught me how to apply what I learn in the classroom to the communities outside of our campus. All of this hard work and dedication over the last four years has paid off through acceptance to Phi Beta Kappa, winning the 2021 Senior Alumni Award, acceptance into the Whitians Society, and various other awards and scholarships. I am proud of the person I have become as I prepare to leave Ursinus and apply these skills out in the world.

Nicole: My proudest UC moment has been serving as president of Women in Technology and Science. My junior year, we hosted several Lunch and Discussions with women STEM faculty members and women STEM students to foster a community. I remember one of our last lunch and discussions, my fellow peers and I sat with the faculty members discussing how aspirations and goals do not always follow a linear path. Bridging this gap between faculty and students and having such a deep personal connection with many professors I have never even had for class really showed the compassionate nature of this community. Hearing their stories was eye-opening, and my peers and I really took their information to heart. Having this discussion exemplified the power of mentorship and community, and I am forever grateful for our welcoming, kind faculty members. Secondary to this moment is from the alternative spring break trip for Habitat for Humanity to Georgetown, South Carolina, my sophomore year. Some of my peers and I were working on clearing off the existing shingles on the roof of a house, and I remember looking down and around the community of Habitat and my classmates. Throughout this community, I could see the sheer number of homes that this organization could construct and renovate, making me feel so grateful to be a part of this opportunity and something much bigger. Below me, my classmates diligently put in windows, siding, and doors in the home’s inside. While many of our friends were at home watching TV or on tropical vacations, we were creating long-lasting memories between us, and for the future homeowner.

How is winning a Senior Alumni Award significant in your career trajectory?

Hannah: The Senior Alumni Award acknowledges the hard work, dedication, and commitment of the recipients and their potential to hold leadership roles and make an impact in their field. Winning this award is a significant honor for which I am incredibly grateful, and it inspires me to continue pursuing my passions. Though my involvements and accomplishments were rooted in what excites me, it is rewarding to be recognized. I will carry this recognition throughout my future endeavors as a reminder of all that I am capable of and all that I have to offer.

Nicole: Being honored with a Senior Alumni Award further shows the hard work and passion I put into my aspirations. This is a recognition of the dedication I have expressed and will continue to throughout my career as a physician and as a well-rounded individual.

What does being a “Bear for Life” mean to you?

Hannah: Being a “Bear for Life” means appreciating all the opportunities that I have been fortunate enough to receive throughout my Ursinus undergraduate education; and recognizing that they have set me up well to excel in my academic and personal endeavors. I have built relationships with so many students, faculty, and staff all of whom have impacted me in some way. Because of these relationships and connections, I can proudly say I am a “Bear for Life” because I would not be who or where I am if not for the community and family that Ursinus fosters.

Nicole: Being a “Bear for Life” means to not only appreciate my college experience during the four years that I am on campus but appreciating them throughout my lifetime. I am forever grateful for the times and memories I have had on this campus. The close-knit community that I have formed with friends, professors, and faculty members will always be held close. As an alumna, I know I will be there to support and mentor the next generations of bears.

How has Ursinus prepared you for your future career aspirations?

Hannah: Ursinus has given me the space to explore my passions and find out what I truly want to do after I graduate. Through internships, a rigorous course load, research, study abroad, extracurricular involvements, and jobs, I have been able to develop a strong sense of what I want to do after I leave Ursinus and the type of meaningful work I hope to achieve. I have discovered and strengthened the skills, tools, and talents necessary to make an impact. I am confident in my abilities to address complex problems, hold leadership positions, and ultimately excel in my field. The Bonner Leader Program has been one of the most influential and impactful communities that I have been part of during my time at Ursinus. The dedication to community service, committed discussions about social justice and diversity, and the relationships I have formed with other Bonners and my community partners have deeply shaped my career aspirations and personal goals. I can list several quotes and inspiring moments from Ursinus professors and mentors that I will continue to carry with me after I graduate. My education over the last four years has helped shape my beliefs, taught me to think critically, and to push my boundaries, all of which will serve me well as I combine my interests in Anthropology and Marine Science in graduate school and beyond.

Nicole: From the second I stepped onto campus, I was taught to think critically and with an open-mind. My opinions have been challenged not only in the CIE classroom, but throughout the breadth of courses we are required to take for the liberal arts education. As a future physician, it is imperative for me to listen, challenge my previous viewpoints, and to work to understand the community I am serving. In terms of my chemistry courses, my professors have emphasized analytical thinking, ethics and responsibility, as well as creativity when it comes to solving problems. I am sure that in my career I will take these skills and techniques and apply them to be a competent and compassionate physician.

How do you see yourself getting involved with Ursinus after graduation?

Hannah: I plan to stay involved through receiving updates about campus life, activities, events, and the ongoing research projects that have been started by myself and my peers; I would specifically love to hear how the continuation of my honors research goes! I plan to stay in touch with the faculty and staff who were influential in making my four years as impactful as they were and I would also love to be able to visit campus for events such as Homecoming, CoSA, Alumni Day, etc or participate in panels as a way to connect with future Bears. I anticipate that I will stay in close touch with several faculty and staff who are a large part of why Ursinus is as special of a place as it is.

Nicole: After graduation, I look forward to joining a wonderful group of alumni and continuing to stay in touch with the college. There are great alumni events and opportunities, so I will definitely be looking forward to those. I also see myself coming back for homecoming and alumni weekend in the future too!

What are you most looking forward to after graduation?

Hannah: I am most looking forward to all the new opportunities and open doors that lie ahead. I am thrilled to launch my career in coral reef ecology and restoration and pursue my passions in connecting with people in coastal communities to learn about their relationships with coral reefs and other marine ecosystems. I hope to build off the work I have done at Ursinus and make important, novel contributions in my field and help inform restoration and conservation programs. The possibilities seem endless and while I am excited for the opportunities to be out in the field and to travel for research, I am looking forward to continuously growing and expanding my understanding of the world around me, exploring my passions and striving to make an impact wherever I go.

Nicole: In the short term, I am looking forward to one last summer of relaxation and travel before embarking on my next journey—medical school. I am excited to immerse myself in medicine and begin caring for patients. While medical school will be a challenge, I cannot wait to see what new experiences and passions are in my future.

What advice do you have for fellow UC Bears on how to make their mark on Ursinus’s campus?

Hannah: I would say to get involved in organizations and activities early on! It can be daunting with so many different possibilities, but by starting early, you allow yourself the time to learn what you are interested in and, conversely, what you are not interested in. Many people say not to be afraid to try something new, and I agree. You may not succeed at everything you try, but in hardship and failure there are opportunities to grow and learn. I believe having those experiences shape us and when you find something that clicks, run with it. Do your best to practice keeping an open-mind and kind spirit with those you meet, lean into your support systems, and do not be afraid to ask for help along the way. 

Nicole: Get involved early and make the most of your time here. Everyone says it, but it is true, college goes by quickly. Focus on your academics, but remember to take time for yourself and to experience life. Reach out to your professors and other staff members who are rooting for you every step of the way. Explore your passions and find new ones, college (and life) is too short for regrets.

View previous Senior Alumni Award  recipients