McKenna Smith: Pursuing biological sciences

Keeley Coastal Scholars Award supports student

McKenna Smith (Crown ’24, biochemistry and molecular biology and marine biology) was awarded the Keeley Coastal Scholars Award in 2022.

McKenna Smith (Crown ’24, biochemistry and molecular biology and marine biology) chose to attend UC Santa Cruz to pursue her love for marine biology, but wanted to keep her options open to pursue other opportunities in the biological sciences. Smith says UC Santa Cruz gave her the perfect opportunity to pursue many different areas regardless of her major. 

In 2022, Smith was awarded the Keeley Coastal Scholars Award. The scholarship provides undergraduate students at UC Santa Cruz the financial support they need to engage in summer research and policy work related to coastal sustainability. Students can be doing work in any area of terrestrial, aquatic, or marine systems along the coast.

Smith is currently pursuing a double major in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, and Marine Biology, and is working with Professor Peter Weiss to study mercury contamination in local watersheds. She also works within the School of Engineering to participate in the annual synthetic biology competition, iGEM.

“This scholarship has already given me a phenomenal opportunity to participate in the grant application and experimental design process,” Smith says. “I have already worked with Professor Weiss to write and develop the method and description for this project and I am so excited to be able to complete this project with the support of the Keeley Scholarship.”

The Keeley Coastal Scholars Award is funded by Fred Keeley, who is currently serving as Mayor of Santa Cruz and also served as the Santa Cruz County Treasurer/Tax Collector. He represented the Monterey Bay area in the California State Assembly from 1996 through 2002, and earlier served as a Santa Cruz County supervisor. 

During his tenure in the state legislature he authored the Marine Life Management Act, which the Associated Press called the “most significant advancement in ocean policy in 50 years.” Keeley also authored the two largest park and environmental protection bonds in the state (and nation’s) history. He is a board member of Ocean Champions and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Foundation.

Smith says she is excited to collaborate with other universities and is grateful to have the support and guidance of her PI, Dr. Weiss, as well as from Professor Eve-Lyn Hinckley at University of Colorado, Boulder. She is also grateful for  the incredible support of Ph.D. candidate, Nettie Calvin, who has been an instrumental support to the project. 

Smith’s advice for other UCSC students: you get out of college exactly as much as you put in. 

“It can be a really intimidating experience to transition to college but learning how to advocate for yourself and ask for what you want is the most valuable skill you can learn,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to reach out, apply for, contact any professor whose research you are interested in and see how you can be a part of it. Even if you don’t get the answer you want or get into the program you are hoping for, sometimes changing your focus can be the best way to discover something you are even more passionate about.”