Melissa Mackelprang, Southeast Bulloch High School’s valedictorian, will head to the University of Georgia this fall to major in biology and pursue her dream of becoming a geneticist.
“I am really excited about the possibility to help people with problems that they never had any hope of fixing,” Mackelprang said. “Well, until someone like me comes along to say, 'yes, this is possible.’”
Her inspiration to become a geneticist came in the eighth grade while reading the Leviathan series, a collection of science fiction works set in World War I. In the books, the Allied forces use genetically modified animals as war machines.
That interest continued in ninth grade when her Biology teacher, Danielle Hibbs-Heizer, taught her how genes can be modified.
“I have a friend who is going blind, and his retinas are closing,” Mackelprang said. “Even if doctors were able to prevent it from getting worse, the damage is irreversible because it’s coded in his genes. But, genes can also be used to make new organs. So, my friend who is going blind, I could potentially create new eyes for him.”
Hibbs-Heizer recognized Mackelprang’s passion for genetics the minute she walked into her Biology class.
“She’s brilliant! Melissa is not just smart. She is kind, funny, creative, musical, forward-thinking, inclusive, persistent, responsible and curious. I can’t wait to read her first scientific publication and see what she discovers. For her, it is not a question of if, it’s when,” she said.
Originally from Cumming, her family moved to Bulloch County when Melissa was in the sixth grade. They enrolled her at Southeast Bulloch Middle and it was there that she found symphonic band and the saxophone. It’s now been her seven-year musical outlet where she became part of the SEBHS saxophone quartet, and she earned a spot in the Southeast United States Honor Band, a program for exceptional high school musicians at Troy University.
“Melissa is genuine,” said Matt Olsen, SEBHS’s band director. “In an age of online personas and kids trying to fit in, Melissa is always true to herself. She has all of the ingredients for someone who will make the world a better place.”
The qualities that Melissa’s teachers see in her are ones her parents, Darren and Mercedes Mackelprang, taught her. They raised her to be self-reliant, disciplined and hardworking while also striving to remain honorable, true to her values and kind to others.
Mackelprang is very active in her faith at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints while embracing science and logic wholeheartedly.
“I think my purpose is to get as close to the truth that I can. In quantum mechanics, you can know where something is, but you can’t know where it’s going at the same time. Maybe the truth isn’t a set point, but a realm of possibilities," she said.
At UGA, Mackelprang expects to bike around campus, sit at the front of her classes and ask questions, and be on the hunt for research opportunities. After finishing her undergraduate degree, she hopes to be accepted to an Ivy League university for graduate school.