An Academic Honor

CAFNR students earn MU Award for Academic Distinction

Propelled by two of MU’s values, discovery and excellence, four CAFNR students have received the 2020 University of Missouri Award for Academic Distinction.

Undergraduate students who excel at contributing to MU’s academic atmosphere are recognized with the award. CAFNR seniors Cole Diggins, Kody Jones, Paxton Kostos and Stephanie Scott were among the 15 students selected for the campus-wide honor.

Criteria for the award includes evidence of extraordinary intellectual curiosity, actively seeking knowledge beyond the classroom and striving to share that knowledge with others for a broader impact.

Cole Diggins – Soil, Environmental and Atmospheric Sciences

As a member of the Bronaugh FFA chapter, Diggins visited MU’s campus each year competing in the Missouri Agriscience Fair. Not only did he win multiple times at the fair, and was even named the Missouri FFA Star in Agriscience, Diggins also learned something valuable about himself – his interest in environmental and agricultural sustainability.

“As for Mizzou,” said the now-senior, “That was always my dream!”

Being a first-generation college student, Diggins said he often felt less informed than his peers regarding available academic opportunities as a freshman. This fueled a desire to positively impact other undergraduate students by sharing his knowledge and becoming more involved on campus.

Cole Diggins, a senior studying Soil, Environmental and Atmospheric Sciences said it was exciting to be an Award for Academic Distinction recipient. Photo courtesy of Diggins.
Cole Diggins, a senior studying Soil, Environmental and Atmospheric Sciences
said it was exciting to be an Award for Academic Distinction recipient. Photo courtesy of Diggins.

“Serving as an Undergraduate Research Ambassador, a School of Natural Resources Student Ambassador and as a McNair Research Ambassador has allowed me to help over 100 students navigate the confusing path toward undergraduate research and beyond,” Diggins said. “I particularly enjoy advising other first-generation students and their parents about college prep and financial opportunities within STEM, as their needs and concerns are often unique.”

Diggins said he’s helped 12 families obtain scholarships, identify major interests and secure academic advisors.

Aside from assisting others in their own academic journey, Diggins has also worked in research, studying various topics like water infiltration and storage within the soil, and how to mitigate the impact of climate change and lessen harmful fertilizer and soil runoff adversely affecting fish and wildlife populations.

Diggins has shared his research with others through presentations across the state and was even asked to present his research at the Undergraduate Research Day at the State Capitol.

“It is the prospect of improving the lives of those around me, coupled with an intense need to solve problems, that drives my passion for research,” Diggins said.

Diggins has had a little guidance along the way, too.

“During my two years as a McNair Research Scholar, I have been fortunate to have been mentored by Dr. Stephen Anderson, whose guidance and encouragement have been instrumental in my academic success,” he said.

“CAFNR, and the professors I have had, taught the academic side of things, but also the skills and abilities required of a grad student and as an employee. It’s the advice and mentoring received that opens your mind to yet unrealized opportunities. This was research for me, because as a freshman I didn’t know about research opportunities nor the future jobs associated with these research opportunities. I didn’t know how these opportunities would become the focus of my future as a student and ultimately as a member of the workforce.”

Diggins will attend graduate school at Oklahoma State University in the fall, studying plant and soil science and hopes to obtain his doctorate degree after. He plans to have a career as a professional soil science consultant living out his mantra, “Feeding the growing world population in a sustainable manner, with a holistic approach towards the environment.”

Diggins said being named an MU Award for Academic Distinction honoree was exciting.

“To know that my mentor, and ultimately the award selection committee, thought me worthy of such an honor is extremely gratifying,” Diggins said. “An unbelievable personal accomplishment, this award highlights the culmination of the hard work and determination I have put into my education during the past four years here at Mizzou. I will always be grateful for the incredible support system and opportunities afforded me by the University of Missouri, its staff and faculty.”

Diggins was nominated for the award by Anderson, who is the William A. Albrecht Distinguished Professor of Soil and Environmental Sciences.

“It was our pleasure to nominate Cole Diggins for this award since he definitely met the criteria for the Award for Academic Distinction,” Anderson said. “He has excelled in his academic coursework and showed extraordinary intellectual curiosity. Cole performed very well with his research study on cover crop management for improving soil hydraulic properties and water infiltration conducted during the last two years of his degree program. He was recently named Honorable Mention in the 2020 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship competition, which is a significant national achievement.”

Kody Jones – Biochemistry

It was the passion of Shari Freyermuth, associate teaching professor in biochemistry, and assistant dean for academic programs and director of student services in CAFNR, that made MU an easy decision for Kody Jones, a biochemistry senior from Kansas City, Missouri.

“It was clear that she was passionate about the success of students and that really appealed to me as a high school student that was nervous about the transition to a large university like MU,” Jones said.

For Jones, the ability to conduct research as an undergraduate helped shape his academic experience at MU.

“A huge benefit of being a student at MU is the abundance of opportunities for growth outside of the classroom,” Jones said. “Engaging in research as an undergraduate was a way for me to apply the concepts that I learned in my courses to primary research involving plant immunity. Presenting my research at various events on campus gave me the opportunity to disseminate what I had learned, while also gaining valuable feedback from other students and faculty. Similarly, participating in service through organizations like Mizzou Global Brigades and Mizzou Alternative Breaks gave me the chance to work with others to make a positive impact in the communities we served.”

Jones said as he became more involved in extracurricular activities in research and service, he strongly encouraged other students to do the same.

Kody Jones, left, with Dr. Antje Heese, middle, and Paxton Kostos, right. Both students conduct research in Dr. Heese's lab. Jones said he couldn't believe two students from Dr. Heese's lab were among the 15 recipients who received this award.
Kody Jones, left, with Dr. Antje Heese, middle, and Paxton Kostos, right. Both students conduct research in Dr. Heese’s lab. Jones said he couldn’t believe two student researchers from Heese’s lab were among the 15 recipients who received this award. Photo courtesy of Heese.

“Serving as co-president of Mizzou Global Brigades and as a site leader for Mizzou Alternative Breaks allowed me to give back to those organizations by facilitating meaningful experiences for other students to enhance their time at MU,” Jones said.

Jones plans on attending medical school and said his time in CAFNR has helped prepare him.

“The education and mentorship that I gained from my years as a CAFNR student have been invaluable in preparing me for medical school,” Jones said. “I am confident that I would not be where I am today without the support of the CAFNR faculty, especially within the department of biochemistry.”

Jones was nominated for the award by Antje Heese, associate professor of biochemistry and director of graduate admissions for biochemistry. Jones conducted research in Heese’s lab for more than three years.

“I nominated Kody because he exemplifies excellence in academics and undergraduate research, with a strong commitment to community service and leadership,” Heese said. “Kody has been passionate about working in my lab and also serving the MU community, as underscored by his extensive participation and leadership roles in Mizzou Global Brigades and other MU volunteer service groups.”

As Jones’ time as an undergraduate student comes to an end, he shared advice for younger students.

“Don’t be afraid to explore career paths that you hadn’t previously considered,” Jones said. “A benefit of attending a large university like MU is the huge amount of degree programs that are available for students with a variety of interests and goals. And while you’re deciding what to study, get involved in something outside of your classes! There are organizations for every interest, and it doesn’t have to be something directly related to your degree. One of my favorite experiences was working in Panama with Mizzou Global Brigades to develop rural banking systems and micro enterprises (which had little to do with biochemistry).”

Paxton Kostos – Biochemistry

Paxton Kostos, a biochemistry senior from Lee’s Summit, Missouri, has been described as having an “extraordinary intellectual curiosity.”

Kostos said Mizzou was “the best fit for me,” — and her academic time on campus certainly exemplifies that.

“Being involved in organizations has allowed me to learn outside of the classroom and has given me the opportunity to share experiences with the public,” Kostos said. “Presenting my research, going to guest speakers hosted by MU and volunteering in Columbia all allowed me to broaden and share what I’ve learned.”

Kostos also conducts research in Heese’s lab. Heese nominated Kostos for the award.

Paxton Kostos, left, was nominated for the Award for Academic Distinction by Dr. Antje Heese, right.
Paxton Kostos, left, was nominated for the Award for Academic Distinction by Dr. Antje Heese, right. Photo courtesy of Heese.

“One of the reasons I nominated Paxton is that she has an extraordinary intellectual curiosity beyond the MU classroom and a thirst to share her research with the public for broader impact,” Heese said. “As an Apprentice and Fellow of the NIH-funded IMSD-EXPRESS at MU, Paxton has enthusiastically represented my lab at one international, two national, and several local conferences and research forums. Highlighting Paxton’s commitment to her undergraduate research project (conducted for three years in my lab), she received one local and one national Outstanding Poster Presentation Award – which were very well-deserved honors!”

Kostos is passionate about research and plans on pursuing a PhD.

“CAFNR does a really good job of prioritizing their students through mentorship and giving students more of a choice in their academic route,” Kostos said.

As a senior, Kostos took the time to reflect on some of her favorite memories during her time at MU and offer some advice to younger students.

“My favorite memories at Mizzou have centered around the relationships I’ve made here,” Kostos said. “My time at Mizzou has been defined by the amazing friendships I’ve made and experiencing the campus and Columbia with them.

“Make friends in and out of your major and study something you’ve always found interesting, even if it doesn’t propel your career. Finding a passion outside your major can be really beneficial and can make you a more well-rounded student. My philosophy minor has improved my reading and writing as well as my logical thinking skills, and all that transfers to my STEM courses.”

Kostos recognized others that played a huge role during her undergraduate years.

“I was excited to learn that I had won because I think it speaks to all the mentors and organizations that have given me the opportunities to expand my learning and have pushed me to do my best during undergrad,” Kostos said.

Stephanie Scott – Biochemistry

A Jefferson City, Missouri, native, Stephanie Scott said she knew in the third grade that she would attend MU for college.

“When I was in third grade, the gifted program I was in toured Mizzou as our yearly field trip,” Scott said. “When I first walked on campus, I fell in love. I loved how big it was and how beautiful the campus was. I decided then that was where I was going to go to school.”

Later, as a senior in high school, Scott discovered the Discovery Fellows Scholarship, which she said “Sealed the deal for me!”

The biochemistry junior said she chose her major after asking an adviser what the best degree for a pre-medical student would be.

“I went with what she suggested and I never looked back!” Scott said. “I get to learn more about how the world around me works every day — there’s always a new reason to be astounded.”

Before her senior year of high school, Scott wanted to become a high school English teacher, which helped shape her time as an undergraduate student at MU.

Stephanie Scott, a junior studying biochemistry, said receiving the Award for Academic Distinction was a huge honor. Photo courtesy of Scott.
Stephanie Scott, a junior studying biochemistry, said receiving the Award for Academic Distinction was a huge honor. Photo courtesy of Scott.

“As far as sharing knowledge, I’ve been really involved with teaching ever since I first got to Mizzou,” Scott said.

Scott has worked as a Residential Adviser and a Peer Learning Assistant for Residential Life at Mizzou. In these roles, Scott has had the opportunity to lead Freshman Interest Groups, teaching medical careers for the past two years.

“This has allowed me to share information about different careers in the medical field with my students, as well as give them tips and advice on their own journeys,” Scott said. “I’ve really enjoyed the experience and getting to talk to them. I’ve met so many bright students from so many places. They might have taught me more than I taught them, to be honest!”

In addition to these roles on campus, Scott has also conducted research in Richard Ferrieri’s Plant Imaging Lab at the MU Research Reactor. This has allowed her to present posters at conferences and share her research across campus. Scott has participated in the Undergraduate Research Forum, Life Sciences Week and the Pioneer Symposium. She placed fourth at the Pioneer Symposium as the only undergraduate participant, which she said was a huge honor.

“I’ve presented my research at the State Capitol last spring to legislators in an effort to gain more funding for Mizzou’s undergraduate research,” Scott said.

Scott recognized the impact CAFNR has had on her academic career.

“CAFNR has been an amazing resource for me,” Scott said. “It’s been amazing to get experience with real laboratory equipment and to perform real experiments over an extended period of time.”

Scott said participating in the CAFNR Agribusiness Career Connection her sophomore year was beneficial.

“I got to go to Indianapolis with CAFNR my sophomore year over Thanksgiving Break, free of charge! I toured different industries and got to network with people across the city. I learned so much about applying for internships – which was awesome! I wouldn’t have had that opportunity in any other college on campus.”

Scott will apply for medical school this summer with the goal of one day working as a surgeon.

“I want to make a difference with my life and help people every day,” Scott said. “I want to use my skills to make the world a better place and I can’t think of a better way to do that than surgery!”

As Scott looks to the future, she also reflected on what she’s learned along the way.

“Never, ever give up,” Scott said. “I had a really hard time adjusting when I first came to Mizzou. My grades weren’t where I wanted them to be and I almost gave up on becoming a doctor. But I refused to give up. I guess you could say I was pretty stubborn. Regardless, I was able to turn my grades around with some hard work and tutoring sessions with a friend. It’s never too late to turn a bad situation around. You can do anything you put your mind to with a little hard work!”

Scott was nominated for the award by Jeff Galen, director of the MU nuclear medicine technologist program. Galen and Scott were co-facilitators of a Freshman Interest Group.

“Stephanie is one of the most talented students that I have had the opportunity to work in my entire academic career and I can think of no student more qualified for admission into medical school than her,” Galen said. “Stephanie has excelled academically, but she brings so much more to the healthcare profession than just being bright. During my time working with Stephanie, she has shown a level of maturity and compassion far above her peers. She has excelled at being a leader and her moral character has been unwavering.”