Emily Illingworth: Fearless fortitude

What is the key to success? Emily Illingworth might say it is failure.

Even when failure seems as likely an outcome as success, Illingworth is not afraid to reach.

She sees failure as an opportunity to learn and grow, and her many achievements at the University of Maine are a result of this fearlessness and fortitude.

The first-generation college student from Brewer experienced more than her share of adversity before coming to UMaine. Her father died when she was a child and, as a result, her family became financially insecure. By the time Illingworth was 18, she had moved 14 times.

Such challenges might have deterred some from considering college, but not Illingworth.

“I always knew I was going to have to work harder,” says Illingworth, “and so I did.”

In high school, she took AP classes, did extracurricular activities and received good grades. She single-handedly navigated college applications and the FAFSA.

Her hard work paid off. In fall 2013, she enrolled at UMaine to major in biochemistry.

Illingworth attributes her perseverance to her mother, who taught her how to remain optimistic in the face of adversity. Illingworth describes her family as her anchor.

In her first semester, Illingworth enrolled in HON 150: Dirt to DNA, a phage genomics class taught by professor emeritus Keith Hutchison and Sally Molloy, the Honors preceptor of genomics.

HON 150 is a class where the students learn how to learn, Molloy says. First-year students work with mycobacteriophage — viruses that infect bacteria — and gain extensive laboratory skills.

Molloy says the science skills matter less than what she hopes the students will learn overall: to embrace the challenges that come with learning.

“I tell my students from day one that failure is okay. In fact, it is encouraged,” says Molloy, noting that the liberation allows students to get beyond the fear of making mistakes.

Illingworth stood out in her class. Molloy remembers Illingworth as “a student that was never afraid to initiate. She wasn’t afraid to do something new.”

The following year, Molloy invited Illingworth to become a research assistant in her lab. Molloy noted that she is a fast learner and skilled lab technician. Molloy guided her development as a scientist and a researcher, supporting work that has become increasingly complex and driven by Illingworth’s own discoveries.

Illingworth is also a teaching assistant for Hutchinson in the second semester of the Dirt to DNA class. She teaches the new cohort of phage students the lessons she learned in Molloy’s class — to take challenges head on, and learn from failure.

Hutchinson admires Illingworth’s “deep knowledge of the material, her confidence in her knowledge and her compassion for the students.” Molloy agrees. She notes that Illingworth has a natural ability to connect with the students while helping them learn.

“She takes care of business, but she takes care of everyone else along the way,” says Molloy.

Molloy is not Illingworth’s only mentor. Melissa Ladenheim, associate dean of the Honors College who also teaches in the Civilizations sequence, also helps Illingworth reach for more.

Illingworth remembers a particular class with Ladenheim. It was in a pilot course on civic engagement in which students participated in a privilege walk demonstrating the ways individuals’ circumstances can advantage or disadvantage them. Students were given random scenarios to “walk” and, by chance, Illingworth ended up at the back.

Illingworth had been given a story of someone who, like her, lacked advantage and was facing an outcome very similar to her own. The privilege walk reinforced what Illingworth already knew: she had to work harder than everyone else to get to where she wanted to go. And she was quite prepared to do so.

At UMaine, Ladenheim made sure that Illingworth didn’t have to do it on her own. She puts Honors students first, and works hard to support them by providing resources and opportunities to keep them moving forward academically and professionally.

“She is always sure to send along any opportunities that may be of interest to both her current and former students, and she has been not only a mentor, but a dear friend,” says Illingworth of Ladenheim, whose open door policy makes it easy to seek guidance whenever students need it.

Those sentiments are mutual for Ladenheim.

“I was impressed very early on by Emily, both academically and personally. She is incredibly caring and compassionate, born in part from her keen awareness of the inequities that arise by virtue of one’s circumstances,” Ladenheim says.

Pursuing a leadership minor is a natural extension of her commitment to community service. Illingworth has a long history of helping others and her community, driven by the belief that “volunteering contributes to your overall understanding of how the world works and gets you out of your bubble.” Her work includes her service this past summer as a counselor at a camp for children with muscular dystrophy.

Illingworth embraces opportunities to hone her leadership skills, such as taking part in the Maine NEW (National Education for Women) Leadership program, designed to educate and empower women and encourage their participation in civic life. She has been involved with the Honors College Student Advisory Board and Operation H.E.A.R.T.S (Hands-on Educational Association Reaching out Through Service).

Illingworth also volunteers for the RiSE Center’s Expanding Your Horizons, a conference introducing middle school girls to STEM education and careers.

In recognition of her scholarship, leadership and commitment to community service, Illingworth was selected for the exclusive All Maine Women Honor Society.

Illingworth is completing her undergraduate Honors thesis, “Genomic Variation and Host Range in Mycobacteriophage,” on how different phage behave in alternative mycobacterial species. Her passion and dedication to biochemistry has led to her own novel research on mycobacteriophage, where she is contributing to the understanding of phage microbiology.

Illingworth has presented her research at several conferences, including the National Collegiate Honors Council Annual Conference, the Center for Undergraduate Research Academic Showcase, and at the prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm Research Campus.

Illingworth’s research has been supported by several competitive scholarships including an INBRE (IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence) research fellowship, the Frederick Radke Undergraduate Research Fellowship and the Helen Stinchfield ’18 Scholarship.

Through it all, Illingworth remains humble, gracious and kind, and a firm believer that failure is an opportunity, not an endpoint.

After graduation in May 2017, Illingworth plans on pursuing a Ph.D. in toxicology, physiology and molecular mechanisms at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

By Noelle Leon-Palmer; contact: Margaret Nagle, 581.3745