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Amelia Noall standing at the top of Torc Mountain in Ireland, overlooking a vast field.

French, microbes and the microbiology senior who speaks both

By Elana Roldan

Amelia Noall standing atop Torc Mountain in Killarney National Park, Ireland during her time studying abroad.

Lice: creepy, crawly, but to a young Amelia Noall, fascinating.

Memories of getting lice in elementary school aren’t usually fond ones, but after she was gifted a microscope by her mother, the experience became an early sign of Noall’s eventual major.

“There was an outbreak at my school, and of course I got it. But I started looking at the bugs through my microscope and thinking, ‘Wow, these are so interesting!’” she recalled. Her natural desire to explore paired well with the smaller, unseen parts of the world around her. As she followed her curiosity, picking leaves from the ground and examining their hidden structures through the microscope lens, she unknowingly paved the way toward her time as a microbiology major — and now senior — at Oregon State.

Exploring the little things

Leaving Portland, Oregon to start her first year of college, Noall decided to major in biohealth sciences, set on pursuing forensic anthropology. But she later felt drawn to naturopathic medicine, and after that, realized she didn’t have a particular goal in mind.

“Being here exposed me to a lot more than I had ever really seen,” Noall said. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I wanted to keep exploring.”

She began diving head first into science at Oregon State, fitting as many clubs and classes as she could into her schedule, and eventually stumbled upon the microbiology major. Just as the shapes and forms of small organisms had captivated her as a child, microbiology caught her attention for a similar reason.

“I actually chose microbiology because I think that microbes are cute,” Noall said, laughing. This unassuming interest appealed to her enough that she decided to commit. With a final switch of her major to microbiology, she soon found herself appreciating microbes for much more than how they looked.

"Bacteria live on us, in us. We’re about as much microbe as we are human.”

You may not see microbes as often as you would birds hopping between tree branches or squirrels darting across sidewalks, but they exist nonetheless in a subtler way throughout all habitats, too small to be seen by the naked eye. Despite their tiny stature, the importance they carry is immense.

“The amount that microbes could make or break our future is incredible,” said Noall. “Microbes are what we think of as the most simple organisms, but they are so complex and amazing at what they do. Bacteria and phytoplankton and zooplankton could help us a lot with climate change. If your gut microbiome is off, it can cause you to have new food allergies. Microbes are something so small that you can’t see them, yet they can affect not only the environment but us too.”

Before studying microbiology, Noall’s view of microbes was much narrower. “I definitely thought before that bacteria were just something you kill with antibiotics, but they help us a lot more than they hurt us,” she said. “Bacteria live on us, in us. We’re about as much microbe as we are human.”

She decided that the major would never be boring and always give her a new question to ask, and chose to continue studying it through college. “I started for the appearance of the microbes and how cool they seemed, and I think I stuck with it for how interesting they are and how in-depth microbiology goes,” she said.

To speak the language

As time has gone on, Noall has developed more passions outside of microbiology. She has often felt pulled in many directions, which was amplified by the vast spread of opportunities available on a campus as large as Oregon State.

“It’s a big school and there’s so much to do, and I wanted to fulfill all those desires in me to learn all I possibly could,” she said.

One of those desires would weave together nicely with her love of language. Beyond the facts and figures of science, Noall carved out a slice of her time to dedicate wholeheartedly to studying French. The language had long been a cherished hobby of hers, but she never intended to continue learning it in college.

“It wasn’t originally my plan to have a language component, but I took the language test before I came here and I ended up speaking to one of the French professors before school started my first year,” she explained. She learned that she would only need two years of French classes in order to minor in it thanks to her having studied French through all of high school. The decision to commit to the minor nearly made itself, but Noall had more reason than simply adding another point to her resume.

"My experience with it has been so great. Maybe that’s the reason I fell in love with language.”

“It wasn’t about getting the minor for me,” she said. “One big reason behind it was my French classes were really small, maybe 14 to 16 people, and I liked having a smaller community within a bigger community. All of the French professors are also so kind and amazing, and I guess that’s why I chose to stay in it.”

To Noall, the professors she has had in her time learning French have been the main force shaping her relationship with the language. “I think that a teacher can make a class. I feel like a lot of the classes that I’ve fallen in love with were because of the teacher, and maybe that’s why I love French so much — because my experience with it has been so great. Maybe that’s the reason I fell in love with language,” she said.

Amelia Noall sitting in front of Les Jardins du Palais Royal in Paris, France.

Noall sitting outside of Les Jardins du Palais Royal in Paris during a trip in 2019.

A whole new world

When she started college as a first-year, Noall was driven to squeeze every drop of opportunity she could out of her time at Oregon State. From dedicating herself to her French minor and becoming president of the French Club, to talking with hundreds of coming and going students while working at the Valley Library, she grew connections all over campus. Still eager for more, Noall later chose to spend her senior year studying abroad in Cork, Ireland. But just as it had before, her plan changed.

“It was an entirely new environment with entirely new people.”

“The reason I went to Cork was originally because I knew they offered microbiology classes, and I wanted to go for the full year to get the final microbiology credits that I needed,” she said. “Sadly, I was only able to go for one semester, but because of that I knew I’d be back on campus for two terms and be able to finish those credits here. So I ended up being in Cork for an entirely different purpose.”

Noall decided to take advantage of the circumstances and learn as much about the local area as possible while there. She signed up for an Irish folklore class and an Irish language class, learned traditional dances and even took a course on medieval manuscripts. “It was so nice to be able to explore all of these different areas I had never gotten the chance to before. It was an entirely new environment with entirely new people,” she said.

There was plenty to learn outside of the classroom, too, as Noall quickly discovered. The experience as a whole forced her to grow in ways she didn’t know she could. “It was kind of crazy to think that I could actually have managed that by myself. Especially for someone who’s very indecisive, it pushed me to be a more decisive and thoughtful person,” she said.

Staying in a different country gave her memories that still live vividly in her mind. In the first month she was there, Noall and a new friend of hers took to the water. They paddle boarded next to the town her friend was from, passing by forts with centuries’ worth of history that jutted out into the currents. “That was a beautiful day,” Noall said, describing it as one of her favorite memories from her time in Ireland.

A picture taken from Noall's paddle board of James Fort and Charles Fort in Ireland.

A picture Noall took of James Fort and Charles Fort while paddle boarding in Ireland.

Basking in the uncertainty

Across all of her experiences, whether she was meeting people from different parts of the world or other students at club events, Noall has always prized human connection.

“There are so many unique voices at Oregon State.”

“One of my favorite things is first impressions,” she said. “That moment when you get to meet someone and learn about them for the first time, I really value that. There are so many unique voices at Oregon State. I think if you make the effort to explore while you’re here, you learn a lot.”

As she’s mulled over potential careers for herself, her love of human connection has shone a special light on becoming a teacher. Noall already works as a teaching assistant in a microbiology laboratory and aids students during their experiments. But in each class, the sharing of ideas is a two-way street.

“With my job, it’s not always telling people what to do. It’s learning from them. I think that’s the same with life — it’s just learning from the people around you, and respecting their stories and their paths,” she said.

Noall’s passion for this teaching style stems partly from her time with a certain faculty member at Oregon State. “The number one person to thank for my success was my advisor, Allison Evans,” she said. Evans was her academic advisor for Noall’s first three years of college. “She worked harder than anyone. I think she sat with me for two hours trying to figure out how I can go abroad and get all the credits I need. She honestly is a bit of what made me want to be a teacher because she was so helpful to me that I want to be that figure in someone else’s life.”

Noall and her advisor, Allison Evans, taking a selfie in a microbiology lab.

Noall and her former advisor Allison Evans taking a selfie in Noall's microbiology lab.

Noall will already be part of the Teaching Assistant Program in France (TAPIF) the year after she graduates, having been accepted to help instruct English classes while abroad. Although she isn’t sure if she will continue down the teaching route or follow a different passion for her career, she is ready for whatever road lies ahead.

“I think there’s just so many things that fit for me, and that’s hard, but you just have to bask in the uncertainty,” she said. “You have to find the joy in life, and enjoy the path as you’re learning.”

To read more about being a microbiology major, visit the department’s website here.