Mason’s Youngest 2015 Grad Already Looking Ahead to Next Degree

Paige Epler, the youngest graduate in the class of 2015,  at the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study, where she conducts research on cancer cells' reaction to a low-oxygen environment. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

Paige Epler, the youngest graduate in the class of 2015, at the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study, where she conducts research on cancer cells’ reaction to a low-oxygen environment. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

When Paige Epler started her first day of classes at George Mason University, the then-13-year-old had the usual student jitters. She wondered, would she like the professors, get along with fellow students, understand the material — and what would she wear?

These days the newly turned 19-year-old dons a lab coat for her work on cancer cells at the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study in George Mason researcher Nitin Agrawal’s lab. She graduates on Saturday with a bachelor of science degree in biology with a minor in astronomy from the College of Science.

Epler is this year’s youngest Mason graduate.

“I loved George Mason University from the very first day,” says Epler. “Everyone made me feel very welcome.”

The mix of students­­––from traditional first-year college freshmen to those juggling careers and families to older adults––made her feel right at home.

“I think, as a place, Mason tends to be more open and accepting of people,” Epler says. “I think it’s very accessible in both the literal and metaphysical sense.”

She commutes 45 minutes from her home in Woodbridge, usually belting out opera or studying while her mom, former high school teacher Pamela, drives.

Becoming a medical doctor and a PhD is her ultimate academic goal. This fall, Epler starts another bachelor’s degree, this time in bioengineering at Mason’s Volgenau School of Engineering.

She plans to spend the summer in Agrawal’s lab, continuing her research looking at how cancer cells react to a low oxygen environment.

Like many a scientist, she takes her work to heart. During a genetics lab, she brought the fruit flies home for care and feeding.

“When the lab was over, I couldn’t bear to kill them so I set them free in my backyard,” she said.

Though she is focused and driven, silliness peeks around the edges when Epler talks about her love of the movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” or the long-running TV show, Dr. Who. She traveled to see the famed castle used in the Monty Python movie and traded taunts with some French tourists. She enjoys strategy video games and reading science fiction, especially the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett.

Ultimately, Epler says she wants to work to prevent birth defects. She wants her knowledge to mean something. And it’s when she’s talking about children that Epler smiles the broadest. She hosts parties in her neighborhood to entertain grade schoolers and preschoolers.

She enjoys improv comedy and has taken the stage at the Comedy Spot. “I love presenting,” she says. “I love public speaking.”

One fond Mason memory she has is singing “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” (originally by Pat Benatar) with Mason astrophysicist Peter Becker’s band for her 16th birthday.

She was nine years old when she started the University of Oklahoma High School in Norman, Okla. Before she was into the double digits, she created a Save the Sharks exhibit that was featured at the Smithsonian Museum, and Marketing Math and Science for Girls, designed to eliminate gender bias in advertisements.

If students don’t give up and work hard, they’re sure to succeed at Mason, she says.

“The material here at Mason is not spoon-fed,” Epler says. “You will go so, so far if you try. The teachers really want you to understand the material.”

This article originally appeared on Mason News

Write to Michele McDonald at mmcdon15@gmu.edu

About the College of Science

George Mason University’s College of Science (COS) offers over 40 interdisciplinary degree and certificate programs in physical, life, mathematical, earth and space sciences, data, forensics and policy to over 3000 students each year. The college, a crucial part of the university’s goal to promote research of consequence, accounts for roughly 30% of the university’s research expenditure. The college’s broad regional presence, combined with strategic national and international connections, reinforces the college’s mission to provide world-class scientific leadership important to modern society. George Mason University, located just outside of Washington, DC, is Virginia’s largest public research university. For additional information, email cosnews@gmu.edu.