(Editor’s Note: As Commencement nears, WVUToday is featuring some of the University’s most dedicated graduates. Here is the story of one of those students.)
Affectionately referred to as ‘Law School Hill’ by students and alumni, its steep, grassy slope offers adventurous students sled rides on snowy days and determined runners a challenge on its adjacent stairs leading to Milan Puskar Stadium and Ruby Memorial Hospital.
But for upcoming graduate Clara Beth Novotny, one of about 4,500 students who will receive degrees this weekend, that hill offers her more than an adventure or a challenge: it offers perspective. It’s her favorite spot on campus for a reason, as it reminds her of where her journey started – and where it will take her next.
No, Novotny isn’t going to law school. And while she credits her disciplined nature and mental toughness to her time as a runner, she isn’t training for the New York City Marathon, either.
For a legacy Mountaineer like Novotny, the WVU campus is not only a place where she can continue her education – it’s home.
“I was born in Morgantown while my dad was studying at the College of Law,” Novotny said. “I can stand at the top of that hill and think about where my story started, look out at the Health Sciences campus and dream about what the future holds and the lives that I hope to change. It’s amazing how my story has come full-circle.”
That story took shape as Novotny was growing up in Falling Waters, where she seized the opportunity to spend a summer studying in the impoverished country of Honduras during her years at Hedgesville High School.
It was a trip that profoundly changed her life.
“Women in Honduras don’t have the access to contraception and health care that we do here in America,” Novotny said. “Women were giving birth in dilapidated, crowded and unhygienic conditions. They would deliver their baby and be sent home one day later.”
When Novotny returned to the United States, she realized her time in Honduras was an experience that she couldn’t shake. As the country’s political climate and healthcare system continued to present complications for women’s reproductive health, Novotny was resolute in her mission to make a difference.
“I came home and I felt like the women I had encountered had inspired me in ways I couldn’t measure, but I also felt discouraged that I couldn’t do more for them,” Novotny said. “That was when I decided that I really wanted to take a path that could make a long-term difference in the lives of the women and help with health tools and medical technologies related to contraception and reproductive health.”
Her next decision was an important one: what college could equip her with the knowledge and offer her the necessary support to advance her dream of making medical advancements for women?
She could have studied anywhere. But for Novotny, it was clear that the best opportunity would take her back to where her story started: on the campus of West Virginia University.
“I visited WVU for an Honors College visitation day my senior year [in high school],” Novotny said. “I left that day feeling connected to the campus – it was a perfect blend of offering a small, family-oriented feel with the scope of opportunities you would expect from a big institution. I had no doubt that the opportunities for research and faculty support would be exactly what I needed to make my dream a reality.”
As expected, WVU offered her all the opportunities that she hoped for and more. And she never let the grass grow under her feet in pursuit of them.
Novotny entered WVU as a Foundation Scholar, the University’s most prestigious award for high school seniors who have accepted an offer of admission.
Once on campus, the lab became her playground, as she dedicated countless hours to working with her professors on research and experimentation related to potential contraceptive methods. She worked as a teaching assistant in the biology department and as a laboratory assistant in the WVU Reproductive Immunology and Molecular Biology Lab, where she participated in the research of turmeric as a new form of contraception, a concept which she continues to study and that she believes has great promise.
She declared a second major in Spanish to close the language barrier and to allow her to engage with the women in Honduras, as she returned there on a medical mission trip with the WVU Global Medical Brigades. It was during that trip that she assisted and translated for U.S. doctors performing dental and gynecological health exams in mobile health clinics.
“My return trip to Honduras was rewarding beyond measure,” Novotny said. “While researching in the lab was valuable and rewarding in its own way, I felt disconnected from the patient end. This gave me the opportunity to connect with these women and really feel that I was making a difference in their challenges with healthcare, especially in terms of reproductive health.”
In addition to her trip to Honoduras, Novotny also dedicated a spring semester and a summer of her college years studying in Spain, thanks in part to the study abroad stipend afforded to her through her Foundation Scholarship. She used the opportunity to broaden her perspective on healthcare through studying the differences between the Spanish and American healthcare systems and took classes in medical interpretation and translation.
Novotny somehow found time to study the medical systems abroad while balancing responsibilities through her membership in numerous honoraries, volunteering, being a student in the Honors College, working in the lab, rising to the top of both of her academic programs, being named to Order of Augusta and finding time to enjoy normal college activities, such as rock-climbing and hiking with her friends.
Her experiences culminated in being named as a finalist for the nation’s top academic award – the globally-revered Rhodes Scholarship – during the fall 2015 semester.
“It was an absolutely incredible experience,” Novotny said. “Feeling that validation from WVU and the Rhodes Trust in support of my goals was fantastic and encouraging.”
Going through the Rhodes process made it all the more clear to her that WVU School of Medicine was the right place for the next step of her education.
“The most important attribute for me was choosing a medical school with a supportive environment,” Novotny said. “Seeing WVU faculty and students encourage and cheer me on during the Rhodes process really drove home to me that my biggest support system was right in my backyard.”
Now, as Novotny prepares to don her cap and gown this weekend, she’s ready for what the future holds.
That future encompasses a dream of working in WVU’s Center for Reproductive Medicine to continue to pursue her passion project of improving the efficacy and availability of reproductive healthcare in underdeveloped and developing countries.
“I hope that in 10 years that I am in a reproductive endocrinology fellowship right here at WVU,” Novotny said. “I hope to learn French by then, too.”
She laughed as she realized that she would still be a student in a decade. “I would like to have a family, but a dog would be a good starting point.”
Whatever life holds for Novotny, there is no doubt that great things lie ahead, and she couldn’t be happier to be pursuing them in the place where it all began.
“I was born here and I just couldn’t leave here,” Novotny said.
And she hopes she never has to.
Story by Heather Richardson
Photos by Brian Persinger
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