Goldwater Scholar nurtures passion for health research at Mercer

Dakota Ellis on the Mercer campus
Dakota Ellis. Photo by Chris Smith

Dakota Ellis wanted to be a meteorologist until her junior year of high school, when academic and personal experiences caused her career path to pivot. That year, she was introduced to the natural sciences during a microbiology course, and she lost two of her grandparents to cancer and illness. She felt a call to help people through health research, and opportunities for service and undergraduate research led her to enroll at Mercer University

“I thought what better way to honor (my grandparents) and find a new purpose in my life than to go into health research, so that nobody would ever have to suffer like my family did. That was one of the hardest years we’ve ever had to go through,” said Ellis, who is from Buford.

Now a rising senior majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology, Ellis has grown and nurtured her interests through her courses and extensive lab work. Earlier this spring, she was one of three Mercer students to be awarded the prestigious Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, which recognizes undergraduates in science, mathematics and engineering. Rising seniors Ryan Brownlee and Bryana Whitaker will be profiled in future Den stories. 

Two students stand on each side of a research poster, with a large building in the background.
Aaliyah Deen Sesay (left) and Dakota Ellis stand with their poster at the 2021 Southeast Regional Meeting of the American Chemical Society in Birmingham, Alabama. Photo courtesy Dakota Ellis.

“I know I wouldn’t have been able to do this without faculty support. I just feel very blessed because this is a huge opportunity, and not many people get it,” Ellis said. “I knew going in (to college) that I definitely did want to pursue some kind of research career, and I saw how involved the professors were with undergraduates and research. I knew Mercer would be a great place for me to be able to take advantage of those opportunities.”

Since the spring semester of her freshman year, Ellis has conducted research in the lab of Dr. Emilianne Limbrick, assistant professor of chemistry. Their work focuses on the biosynthesis of lanthipeptides, a group of natural products that frequently possess antibacterial activity.

“The relationship working under a professor has been very fulfilling,” Ellis said. “Dr. Limbrick gives great advice about lab work, life in general and graduate school. She’s helped me to develop my research and critical thinking skills and learn how to ask questions and dig deeper into the project.”

Ellis conducts experiments, analyzes data, troubleshoots issues, and has presented her findings at conferences, Dr. Limbrick said.

“Her determination and willingness to meet challenges has made her a valued part of my lab.

Dakota Ellis sits down in the lab and works with a pipette and test tubes.
Dakota Ellis works in a lab at Mercer. Mercer University photo

She has also been able to transfer both knowledge and skills between projects that she has worked on at various institutions, which is rare for a young student, Dr. Limbrick said. “Dakota is an inquisitive student who has demonstrated her love of and commitment to scientific research. She has participated intensively in research since her freshman year and has shown an aptitude for problem-solving.”

Ellis’ work with Dr. Limbrick paved the way for her to do a Research Experience for Undergraduates last summer through Georgia Tech’s biomedical engineering department. During the 10-week program, she saw the biochemical side of engineering research and worked with intrinsically disordered proteins. This summer, Ellis is diving into pharmaceutical research as she works with Dr. Nader Moniri in the College of Pharmacy in Atlanta as part of the Mercer Undergraduate Research Scholar Training Initiative.

Dakota Ellis wears a Santa hat and holds a flute in one hand and alto flute in the other.
Dakota Ellis is shown with her instruments before a Mercer Flute Choir concert. Photo courtesy Dakota Ellis.

Outside her studies at Mercer, Ellis has been heavily involved in MerServe, the University’s student-led service programming board. She will take on a larger role during the 2023-24 year as director of operations. In addition, she is a talented musician. She is a member of the Mercer Flute Choir and previously participated in the Wind Ensemble. Off campus, she is a church pianist at Russellville Baptist Church in Forsyth, playing for services there every Sunday. 

Ellis said the Goldwater Scholarship will help fund her studies and launch her into the next step, graduate school. After graduating from Mercer, she plans to pursue a Ph.D. in biochemistry, with the ultimate goal of doing cancer immunology research at a national laboratory.

“I look forward to big things from Dakota in the future,” Dr. Limbrick said. “Her determination and strong work ethic will serve her well as she makes important contributions to her field. Dakota is a remarkable young scientist who will make a great impact.”


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