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Imani Russell: Off to Africa

Imani Russell. (Image courtesy of Imani Russell)
Imani Russell. (Image courtesy of Imani Russell)

Often, graduation is both the celebration of past achievements and the beginning of a new adventure. For senior Imani Russell, who will receive a biology degree, her achievements in the last four years have paved the way to South Africa, where she will be working with Animal Planet’s Meerkat Manor this August.

Meerkat Manor will not be Russell’s first research experience with fuzzy mammals; Russell said her research at Mills has helped prepare her for the job. In 2013, Russell was awarded the Barrett Scholarship to conduct research alongside Mills Professor Dr. Jenn Smith. For eight hours a day over the summer of 2013, Russell studied the sociality of California ground squirrels at Briones Regional Park. 

“A lot of studies are doing this right now, which is pretty interesting, using [animals’] social habits and how they interact with each other and form coalitions and how that applies to human behavior,” Russell said. “We all had different aspects of the project, but mine was on parasites and disease transmission.”

The potential for undergraduate students to work with professors on research is one reason Russell said she’s glad she chose Mills over Berkeley, but it was a close call four years ago. Russell said opportunities like this have become an important part of her experience at Mills.

“It was a tie, [because] I wanted to go to Berkeley also,” Russell said. “The undergraduate research opportunities at Mills are amazing. I don’t think I’d be where I am today, and I don’t think I’d be on the same path if I had gone to a bigger school like Berkeley. I think I’d be farther behind and still trying to figure out what I wanted.”

Russell’s degree will be a B.S. in biology with an ecology practice track. Russell said she hopes to pursue a PhD and a career in ecology. 

“Overall, I want to do field research in conservation of endangered species and ecosystems. Anything that falls under the umbrella of that, I think I wouldn’t mind having as a career.”

Because neither of her parents finished college, Russell said she had trouble in the college application process and difficulty settling into a school routine. Russell was able to reach out to friends for help, but also recommends the resources on campus for other students.

“I’m trying to tell people who are first generation or kind of first generation to just use the resources that are available at Mills, and you can push yourself to achieve whatever you want to achieve if you put the effort forth,” Russell said. “It doesn’t really matter if you don’t have the resources at home because there are a ton of resources, especially at Mills.” 

Russell said she is looking forward to commencement, which her brother, boyfriend, parents and grandparents will all be attending. 

“They’re super excited,” Russell said. “My mom didn’t finish college so they’re very excited that I made it through, I’m moving on and going for my PhD, ultimately. They’re very proud.”

This post appeared in The Campanil‘s special Commencement issue which came out on Tuesday, May 6. For more graduation-related posts, check out The Campanil‘s designated 2014 Commencement webpage here or click on the “Commencement” link in the upper right hand corner of the header.