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Entrepreneurship and Innovation
Melissa Ward - Aquaponics for Medicinal Research
Melissa Ward is on the pre-med track with a major in biology and aspires to be a medical examiner or pathologist. Her interests are archaeology and metabolomics.
“Before engaging with the department, I definitely did not think of myself as an entrepreneur, just someone with all these weird science things to try. After meeting with Professor Thomas last semester during the PitchIt competition, I have learned more about Entrepreneurship and I have even considered pursuing a Science and Entrepreneur path post graduation.”
Last year, Melissa entered the annual Forester PitchIt! competition that lead her to coming up with an aquaponics project that she has been working on since then. Between the PitchIt competition and present day, Melissa has since attended the Princeton Environmental Ideathon, and completed a two-week workshop at iDiv, the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research. Melissa spent her summer researching her aquaponics system, which will be used to grow medicinal plants sustainably. Essentially, the aquaponics system has two main elements: fish and plants. The fish excrete waste into the water, leaving bacteria which is cleaned up by the plants. The entire process promotes the growth of plants to be used for medicinal purposes. Even though Melissa is not an Entrepreneurship and Innovation minor, she has received an incredible amount of support from the department and Science faculty to complete her project.
How did you come up with this idea?
I’ve always had an interest in researching medicinal plants that are sustainable. I first came up with the idea last year when I entered the PitchIt competition.
Entrepreneurs find problems worth solving and mobilize the resources to solve them. Did you think of yourself as an entrepreneur before engaging with the ENTP program?
I do, and I don’t. Before engaging with the department, I definitely did not think of myself as an entrepreneur, just someone with all these weird science things to try. After meeting with Professor Thomas last semester during the PitchIt competition, I have learned more about Entrepreneurship and I have even considered pursuing a Science and Entrepreneur path post graduation. I have also had an interest in taking Entrepreneurship classes at the College, they just haven’t fit into my schedule because of how the Science classes and labs are set up.
What has been the biggest challenge in getting people to help you?
I’ve received a lot of help from the Environmental Studies department. When I came across someone who couldn’t help me, they would refer me to somebody else who could help.
Like scientists, Entrepreneurs need to know how to reframe failure as usable data. What has been the failure that has helped you the most?
Definitely the delays because I had to push everything back for so long since I could not get the fish I ordered in the time. I expected to have my system by a specific date and that didn’t go according to plan. It also took a long time for me to find a system that would work for the space that I wanted to put the plants and fish in. It’s also been difficult from a research standpoint because you have all these delays that you didn’t plan on having.
While doing my research I also found out that it isn’t practical for people in the Midwest to build an aquaponics system because of the difficulties that come with it. I also don’t have the data that I initially thought I would have.
How have you gained more confidence in selling yourself and your ideas?
I haven’t gotten to that point yet, but I will say that I am a lot more comfortable with talking about my research and telling people to invest in my project. I think confidence is key because if I can’t sell myself then I can’t sell my idea.
If you could ask anyone for anything, and get it, who would you ask and for what?
I would probably ask for someone who could help me research more and analyze my results. That would be really helpful. I will probably ask someone in the Environmental Sciences department to help me.
Who have you asked (and for what), and has their answer surprised you? Why or why not?
I applied for the Rocco Fellowship Grant from the College and I wasn’t expecting to get it, but I did. I also didn’t expect my project advisors to agree to help me simply because they didn’t know who I was.
What resources do you still need to complete your project?
I need to change a few things on the system I built before I bring it to the Lillard Science Center. Now it’s just a waiting game of growing plants, collecting data and running tests.
In working closely with the Entrepreneurship department with PitchIt, what have you learned that you can apply in your Science career?
I have learned how to ask for grants in a more professional manner that is more appealing.
Outside of Lake Forest College, where do you see your aquaponics system taking you?
I would like to start a company where I can grow plants that are endangered in the wild that they would use for medical research. I would supply these plants to the medical research facilities, that way they wouldn’t need to continue harvesting these endangered plants from the wild.