Finding Their Purpose

Each in their own way, these four College of Arts & Sciences seniors discovered their intellectual passions—and ways to give back—in Suffolk labs and classrooms
Meredith Melia sitting at a desk reading a book
The Boston Harbor Islands are critical to protecting the city’s shoreline, says environmental studies major Meredith Melia, because they absorb a great deal of force from storms and waves. Melia was invited to present her research earlier this year at the international Ocean Science Meeting in New Orleans.

Researching Sea-Level Rise in Boston Harbor: Meredith Melia, BS ’24

Growing up on a lake in the small town of Sutton, Massachusetts, and vacationing on Cape Cod, Meredith Melia learned to appreciate the nuances of nature. The sounds of wind, waves, and birdsong help her feel centered and calm. But as the years went by, what she observed on the coast filled her with fear.

Erosion is whittling away beaches on Cape Cod and elsewhere, exacerbated by intensifying storms driven by climate change. “It’s terrifying,” says Melia. “I’m only 21 and I can see the changes in just my lifetime.”

Melia, a Class of 2024 environmental studies major, knew she wanted to do something to help address climate change. At Suffolk, she found opportunities to explore many potential paths, including policy, advocacy, and even public relations, before ultimately discovering an unexpected passion for scientific research while studying sea-level rise and living shorelines during an independent study.

While the oceans and coastlines she wants to protect are vast, Melia discovered the scientific community can be a very small world. Using her own network, Environmental Studies Professor Hayley Schiebel connected Melia with researchers at the Boston-based Stone Living Lab who study coastal resiliency and climate change in the city’s harbor.

The Boston Harbor Islands are critical to protecting the city’s shoreline, says Melia, because they absorb a great deal of force from storms and waves. She worked with the lab to analyze tiltmeter data from the waters around Rainsford Island to help measure currents, which help researchers understand how sediment travels and where it’s deposited. “Sediment transport is an integral parameter to implement shoreline stabilization structures, like living shorelines,” explains Melia, because it can show how effective a structure is at mitigating erosion and also reveal weaknesses in existing barriers like poorly maintained sea walls.

Melia had the opportunity to present her research for the first time at the international Ocean Science Meeting in New Orleans this February, where her initial stage fright was offset by the galvanizing impact of networking alongside Schiebel in a sea of almost 6,000 other climate scientists.

“It’s hard to feel discouraged about the challenges in the field when you hear about all the different research people are doing and the creativity behind it,” she says.

As she looks toward graduation and reflects on her Suffolk experience, Melia encourages others to be open to new experiences and connections. Just this year, she says, she built a strong group of like-minded friends within the environmental studies program simply by being willing to make the first overture of friendship.

Now Melia, a planner by nature, is taking a gap year to prepare for graduate school in environmental science. She wants to focus on the work she loves, while remaining open to where life takes her. And it’s a good thing she is, because she just learned she’ll be heading to Shanghai in July for the International Workshop on Urban Ecological Security and Sustainability, jointly hosted by Suffolk and Fudan University, after receiving a grant from Suffolk’s Rosenberg Institute for East Asian Studies.

One thing is certain: Melia is leaving Suffolk equipped with the skills and network to make an impact.

“The field gives me a sense of purpose, and doing research provides direction. I feel so much pride being a part of this work,” says Melia.

Selvin Backert stands on Somerset Street near Miller Hall
Working as a programming assistant at the Museum of African American History, located steps from campus on Beacon Hill, Selvin Backert found the perfect way to inspire others to explore the depth and complexity of American history. “It’s powerful for people to be able to learn and change their perception,” he says, “whether it’s of the city, of their own history, or of themselves.”

Sharing the History of Black Boston: Selvin Backert, BA ’24

Few students are as involved on campus as graduating history major Selvin Backert. Among his many achievements, he’s a runner on both the indoor and cross country track teams with double minors in Black studies and women’s & gender studies, a Journey Program leader, an active member of numerous clubs who serves as outreach chair for the Black Student Union, and the recipient of the Outstanding Student Award at this year’s Celebration of Black Excellence.

And yet, in high school? Not so much.

Backert says his drive for engagement started at Suffolk when courses in Black studies and public history sparked his now-intense desire to learn and share his knowledge with others.

“I didn’t actually come into Suffolk looking to get involved at all,” says Backert. “I never was in high school in any capacity.” While he liked his high school history classes, he chose history as a potential major “kind of on a whim,” he says. “And then I learned how much more I can do with it and how much more I enjoyed it.”

Backert says taking a public history course with Professor Katy Lasdow opened his eyes to the many ways he could use his degree, while learning more about Black history with Professor Lester Lee resonated deeply with him. “Once I realized I can combine the two, it was a go from there.”

Working as a programming assistant at the Museum of African American History, located steps from campus on Beacon Hill, confirmed he’d found the perfect way to inspire others to explore the depth and complexity of American history. He loves working with the public and appreciates the opportunities he has to fill in historical knowledge gaps, especially for members of the Black community.

“Some people are really emotional because they are happy to see these institutions here, to see the buildings still preserved. That’s powerful in itself,” says Backert of the African Meeting House (1806), the oldest extant Black church building in the nation, and the adjoining Abiel Smith School (1835), the oldest US public school built solely for African American children. “And it’s powerful for people to be able to learn and change their perception, whether it’s of the city, of their own history, or of themselves.”

Backert knows how life-changing it is to develop a stronger sense of self and connection with your community. Since finding his own niche, he has sought opportunities to serve and be involved as much as possible at Suffolk.

It hasn’t always been easy. Sometimes, he says, the responsibility he holds as a student leader means that he has to reach beyond what feels comfortable to fight for change. Backert was among a passionate group of students who successfully advocated for maintaining the Black studies minor as a stand-alone program. But while he acknowledges that there are always improvements to be made, he is grateful for his time at Suffolk.

“I don’t think I could be where I am and have the opportunities I do without coming here,” says Backert.

“I always want to be of service, specifically to the Black community. I hope that my legacy will be that I helped people by being that resource.”

Twins Hayden and Sklar Rungren in their Suffolk biochemistry lab
Twins Hayden (left) and Skylar Rungren, both biochemistry majors, have conducted significant research at Suffolk and at the Mass General Hospital Institute of Health. And they are both avid tutors for younger students struggling with challenging foundational science courses. “Some students think we’re going to judge them for not knowing the material, but we’re there as a support,” Hayden says. “We like to see students return and progress.”

Finding the Right Chemistry at Suffolk: Hayden and Skylar Rungren, BS ’24

For Hayden and Skylar Rungren, graduating together from Suffolk’s biochemistry program is “very on brand.” Afterall, the siblings are identical twins.

But while sharing a Commencement ceremony certainly makes life simpler, college hasn’t always been so smooth for the twins, who are both nonbinary and use they/them pronouns. In fact, they didn’t start out at Suffolk. Beginning their undergrad career at a large public institution in Vermont left them feeling lost in a sea of students and separated from the specialty care they both needed as they coped with chronic medical conditions. So they did what they always do when times are tough—they relied on each other.

When Skylar moved to Boston for an internship opportunity with the Boston Public Health Commission in spring 2022, they immediately knew it was the right fit for both siblings. “I did not want to leave,” says Skylar, who visited Suffolk and was immediately drawn to its close-knit environment and nontraditional feel. So they both transferred.

They say the relationships they quickly forged with Suffolk classmates and empathetic faculty over long hours in small classes and labs, along with support from the Office of Disability Services and Center for Learning & Academic Success, allowed them to excel academically while managing their health. “It really feels like professors here care about their students,” says Hayden, who works hard to help make others feel welcome as a Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) scholar.

Moving to Boston also meant entering a world-class medical hub, cutting down on stress and travel time to their own appointments, and opening up a world of possibilities for their futures. Skylar has been building skills in the lab doing novel research with faculty mentor Professor Melanie Berkmen. Meanwhile, Hayden’s work as a research intern at the Mass General Hospital Institute of Health Professions was made possible by help from Suffolk’s Phillips Family Internship Fund, a financial resource supporting access to and engagement with meaningful internship experiences.

And though they’ve each made significant scientific contributions already, perhaps their biggest impact is in the kindness they’ve paid forward to others by supporting peers facing their own health issues, and tutoring younger students who are struggling with challenging foundational science courses.

Hayden says their experiences using supportive resources when they needed them most made them dedicated to removing the stigma for others. “Some students are really skeptical and think tutoring won’t help or that we’re going to judge them for not knowing the material, but we’re there as a support. We like to see students return and progress.”

For Skylar, it was finally finding the right cardiologist to treat their complex genetic condition that clarified a path toward the future. “Sometimes I have no questions and sometimes I have like a million and he is willing to sit there and answer all of them,” says Skylar.

The Rungren twins hope to provide the same compassionate care to patients as they embark on careers in the medical field. They both want to gain experience in clinical settings as they prepare to apply to medical school.

And while they acknowledge that their next step might see them training on opposite ends of the country, they’ll always have each other for support and friendly competition. “Whether Skylar has better grades or I do doesn’t matter,” says Hayden. “As long as we’re both doing well, that’s most important.”

Plus, they laugh, you never know: “Of course, we’ll probably apply to the same schools.”


Greg Gatlin
Office of Public Affairs

Andrea Grant
Office of Public Affairs