PEMBROKE — You can save your jokes.
Ethan Sanford – who was 14 when he enrolled in UNC Pembroke as an Esther G. Maynor Honors College Scholar – has heard them all.
“I got stopped so much on campus by other students asking me where my parents are,” said Ethan, recalling his freshman year in 2012. “Or they would say, ‘are you lost?’”
He may have looked out of place, but according to his former professors at UNCP, Ethan surely wasn’t lost. In fact, they say he is on a path to accomplish great things in the field of research and biomolecular science.
Ethan earned his Biology degree in May – two months after his 19th birthday.
He finished with a perfect 4.0 GPA in his major courses. Along the way, he accumulated several academic honors including the 2016 Outstanding Senior Award and 2016 Biology Department Faculty Award.
He also spent a semester studying abroad at Bangor University in Wales.
Ethan has been accepted into a PhD program in biochemistry, molecular and cell biology at Cornell University, which is among the top research universities in the nation according to U.S. News.
He left today for Ithaca, N.Y.
“I am very excited,” he said. “UNCP has prepared me to take the next step in my career. I couldn’t have asked for a better undergraduate experience.”
“I loved the learning environment,” he said. “I liked the personal attention from faculty and the abundance of seminar-style classes that allowed me to enhance my learning experience.”
Although Ethan spent most of his time in the labs inside Herbert G. Oxendine Science Building, it was in the English Department where he met his mentor — Dr. Scott Hicks.
Hicks taught Ethan as a freshman.
“I believe he was 14 or so at the time and he held his own with college students four, six and more years older than he was,” Hicks said. “In fact, he chose challenging authors to read and write about, and you could see then that he was the kind of person who would ask tough questions, who would challenge his own ideas.”
Ethan earned a minor in English, scoring a perfect 4.0 GPA, no less, in each course. Hicks helped guide his decision to apply to the Ph.D. program at Cornell.
“I owe Dr. Hicks most of my success,” he said. “If it were not for his guidance, I wouldn’t be successful.”
Raised on a 12-acre lake in Hamlet, Ethan has always been fascinated with nature. He would spend hours exploring. He was just as inquisitive in the classroom. Learning came easy. After completing the third grade, his teachers at Marlboro Academy promoted him to the eighth grade.
Ethan is confident that he could’ve gotten into “most schools.” However, when it came time to decide where he would attend college, he completed one application.
“I chose UNCP because I graduated early and, at 14, I didn’t want to be too far away from home,” he said. “UNCP was the best option.”
Besides, UNCP is woven in the Sanford family DNA. His grandmother, Anne, graduated from UNCP in 1978. His parents, James and Anna, also earned diplomas
from UNC Pembroke. They are all educators. Ethan’s mother is currently working on her third degree at UNCP.
“Ever since I can remember, my parents encouraged learning,” he said. “They have always been supportive in my academic endeavors.”
Reared by two science teachers, it’s no surprise this young nature enthusiast gravitated toward the science field. He credits Dr. Velinda Woriax, professor and chair of the biology department, for sparking his interest in cell biology and how it can be applied to health issues.
“Ethan is unique in a way because there are no barriers for him,” Woriax said. “He doesn’t see his age as a barrier. He has the support of the people around him, so the sky’s the limit for him.”
Ethan was the type of student who was more concerned about learning information rather than trying to earn a grade, according to Woriax.
Ethan compiled several hours conducting research outside of class. He spent a semester during his senior year under the guidance of Dr. Conner Sandefur, a computational biologist at UNCP. Together they developed a mathematical model to be used to study patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and cystic fibrosis.
“He was really enthusiastic,” Sandefur said describing his first impression of the young scientist. “He was incredibly articulate. He speaks very mature. He is a bright student … certainly not like what I was like when I was 18.”
Sandefur described his time with Ethan as “inspiring.”
“He has a lot of energy,” he said. “He pours all his energy in everything he does. He was always asking questions, which challenged me to get more information.”
“I see him being very productive and successful in whatever he does.”
Ethan spent the summer of 2015 in the lab alongside Dr. Inna Sokolova at UNC Charlotte studying the effects of cadmium pollution and hypercapnia on two species of marine bivalve.
The youngest member ever inducted into the Esther G. Maynor Honors College, he represented UNCP at the National Collegiate Honors Conference in Chicago.
The Esther Maynor Scholarship is the university’s most prestigious scholarship, paying tuition, fees, room, board and books and is renewable for four years.
“Since that very first day of classes, I have been doing my very best to be an active participant in opportunities — research, conferences, presentations and academic honors — that will prepare me for graduate study,” he said.
Hicks said he was humbled to have witnessed Ethan’s transformation at UNCP.
“I had the pleasure of seeing a mature, poised, complete student ready for the next challenge in life,” Hicks said. “He never took the short cut. He never missed the point of education – that it’s about learning and thoughtfulness and expansion of mind, not about grades and GPAs and class ranks.”
Ethan said he will be forever indebted to UNCP and his professors for providing him with the tools to continue his success at Cornell.
“UNCP has instilled in me the academic, cultural and personal values that make me well-poised to succeed as a Ph.D. student and eventually as a research scientist,” Ethan said.
“My faculty mentors have unambiguously been an inspiration to me, and continue to be so,” he said. “The value of their mentorship cannot be overstated. In this way, I exemplify the success of the pedagogy that is at the heart of UNCP’s mission.”
Mark Locklear is a public communications specialist at UNC Pembroke.