Zoe Vittum: UMaine 2023 Salutatorian

Zoe Vittum of Brewer, Maine is a University of Maine 2023 salutatorian. Vittum, who minors in bioinstrumentation and neuroscience, is a UMaine Presidential Scholar, and a 2022–23 Helen Louise Stinchfield ’18 Memorial Scholar and Tau Beta Pi Scholar. Her numerous academic and research awards include two National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs) — Sensor Science and Engineering at UMaine and Functional Genomics at The Jackson Laboratory. She ​also ​received a UMaine Center for Undergraduate Research Fellowship and the Overall Best Poster Award at the Onshape Research Symposium.

As an Early College student, Vittum was a student research assistant in the Advanced Manufacturing Center, where she collaborated with UMaine experts and industry clients on solution manufacturing and implementation. In addition to her REU at The Jackson Laboratory as a student research fellow, developing computational methods and workflows to analyze genetic architecture and translate large-scale data into genetic models, Vittum was a clinical engineering intern with Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center. Most recently, in her REU in the laboratory of professor Karissa Tilbury, she collaborated to develop and implement a polarization control module within a two-photon microscope and conducted cell culture assays to investigate collagen remodeling. 

On campus, Vittum has had leadership roles in the UMaine chapters of the Society of Women Engineers, Tau Beta Pi and the Biomedical Engineering Society, UMaine Black Bear Robotics and UMaine’s NASA Lunabotics Mining Challenge Team, which competed at the Kennedy Space Center in 2022. Her volunteer efforts have included work at Challenger Learning Center, VEX Robotics and FIRST Robotics, and as a UMaine Cooperative Extension 4-H STEM Ambassador.

Vittum plans to pursue a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, concentrated in women’s health, at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

What difference has UMaine made in your life and in helping you reach your goals?
UMaine has made resources and opportunities such as undergraduate research and leadership accessible to me throughout the entirety of my undergraduate career — opportunities I believe I may not have received if I attended a different university.

Have you had an experience at UMaine that has changed or shaped the way you see the world?
I think that for our graduating class, the majority of us were majorly impacted by the pandemic as we started in fall 2019, only one semester before everyone was sent off campus. After spending three semesters totally virtual, many of us returned to the hardest parts of our degree programs with much less peer academic support than is typically expected. For the majority of us, this, along with attending college during a global pandemic, changed our paths through college and altered our goals. However, these experiences and reflecting on them and where I am now has shown me how fluid life is and how changing a plan isn’t necessarily bad and can even result in a better result.

Why UMaine?
I began attending UMaine as a junior high school student as part of the Early College program. This program allowed me to complete many of the prerequisite and general education courses for most of the prospective engineering programs I was exploring applying to. While taking these courses at UMaine, I was able to get involved with on campus research and clubs that I really enjoyed. These experiences made the decision to stay at UMaine for my official undergraduate coursework easy, as I felt I was already part of a community and at a university where I would have a lot of opportunities as an undergraduate as I was already involved with research.

How would you define the opportunities for student success at UMaine? Is there any particular initiative, program or set of resources that helped you succeed?
The opportunities at UMaine are extensive and exactly what you make of them. If you get involved and stay involved with on-campus organization and resource centers and participate in the opportunities for academic, professional and personal growth every student can be extremely successful. Staying involved has been one of the key ways I have continued to grow and be successful as a student and also how where some of my best memories during undergrad have come from.

Have you worked closely with a professor or mentor who made your UMaine experience better?
Throughout my time at UMaine, I have had three primary mentors who all played critical roles in guiding me through undergraduate education and helped me determine my path after graduation. John Belding, director of the Advanced Manufacturing Center (AMC), was my first mentor at UMaine. John took a chance hiring me as a young high school student, and the opportunities, experience and mentorship I gained from my research at AMC was invaluable in helping me determine that I wanted to pursue research and biomedical engineering. My second key mentor was Anna Tyler of the Carter Laboratory at The Jackson Laboratory. Under hermentorship, I built my confidence in my own ability to be successful in a field of research that I have not specifically studied before. Her mentorship allowed me to be confident enough to pursue many influential opportunities. My final and current research mentor, Karissa Tilbury, has been instrumental in providing me the opportunities and means of attaining the skills and connections I’ve needed to set myself up for graduate school. All of my mentors together have played very individual yet essential roles in my undergraduate career.

What advice do you have for incoming students to help them get off to the best start academically? 
I think the best thing I did as an incoming student was get involved with many clubs and organizations. Pursuing a college degree is hard, regardless of your major and the classes you are taking, getting involved with clubs and organizations is a great way to learn from upperclassmen as well as from friend groups with similarly minded and motivated people which has proven to be invaluable as I have progressed through my undergraduate coursework. I also think it is important to join professional clubs for professional development that can’t be provided through classes that is vital for getting internships and jobs for after graduation.

Contact: Margaret Nagle, nagle@maine.edu