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In Emory College, a behavioral biology major finds her voice

Growing up in rural Kentucky after being adopted from Vietnam, MacKenzie Wyatt knew how it felt to stand out. In the Class of 2016, she also stands out — for her enthusiasm, her research and her work to help orphans.

MacKenzie Wyatt learned to love singing by performing gospel hymns in her rural Kentucky church.

College, she was told, would change her from that girl-next-door into something she might not recognize.

That’s true enough. Four years ago, the behavioral biology major never considered that she would marry her love of music and passion for science by outfitting finches with tiny headsets in biology professor Samuel Sober’s lab.

Or that she would still sing, both at a church near campus and with The Gathering, where she also served as the recording engineer for the campus a cappella group's first professional recording and digital album.

“I fit birds with headphones, and I fit people with headphones,” Wyatt, who graduates from Emory College on May 9, says with the smile that accompanies nearly every comment. “It’s definitely been a theme in my college career. It’s … different.”

Wyatt knows different. Adopted from an orphanage in Vietnam when she was nine months old, she grew up in tiny Mount Sterling, Kentucky, with a daily understanding of what it felt like to stand out.

Her worry coming to Emory College was that she would stand out for not having a rigorous enough science background for her planned pre-med major.

She needn’t have worried. Wyatt not only made up whatever deficit she may have had, but she became a classroom leader to help other students, says Tracy McGill, a senior lecturer in chemistry who taught Wyatt as a freshman in an 8 a.m. general chemistry class.

“When you look into this sea of faces in a lecture hall and see this beaming face, really listening and smiling at everything you say, that person tends to stand out,” McGill says. “MacKenzie was a shining star almost immediately.”

Working to support orphans

Rick Rubinson, a professor of sociology, had a similar “Mackenzie Moment” in class. Explaining the larger issue of family creating emotions, Rubinson cited the example that some people who find out as adults they are adopted report feeling they must find their biological parents — enforcing the “rule” that biology creates emotion.

Wyatt spoke up, saying she finally understood “Gotcha Day,” the celebration her parents held every year on the day they adopted her.

“She said it illustrated the point from the other direction, that as an Asian child, it would be hard to hide she was adopted,” Rubinson says. “She was so excited that she finally understood why it was such a big event to her parents. I’d never thought of it like that, and I still use that example in class because of her.”

Rubinson also signed on to be the faculty mentor to a project Wyatt wanted to tackle. She founded the Emory chapter of the Worldwide Orphanage Relief Coalition, to supply 12 orphanages in South America and Africa with food, clean water and health care.

Recent efforts include helping the residences create community gardens to both feed children and staff and raise money for other needs.

“If you just raise money, you lose sight of the bigger picture,” Wyatt explains.

Combining music and science

Wyatt has kept focus on her own bigger picture in part by finding a home in the Decatur-area Rehoboth Baptist Church and becoming involved in Baptist College Ministry.

Her faith has played a role in her academic choices. Her belief, expressed in discussions with now-mentor McGill, led her to decline a chance to study abroad and instead conduct research on Bengalese finches, also known as society finches, in Sober’s lab.

As a Woodruff Research Scholar, she was the first undergraduate to perform surgery on the birds, attaching headphones that could capture and play back their own mating songs.

Wyatt’s research involved altering the songs, which are unique to each male bird as taught by their fathers, to see how the birds would react.

The result is Wyatt’s honor’s thesis, which revealed that the birds would alter their songs differently with changes in timing and pitch. The specifics are under wraps until Wyatt can publish her findings.

“Music and science, together, that’s something that really speaks to me,” Wyatt says. “It’s all about knowing your voice.”

Wyatt found hers at Emory. Those big changes she was told to expect never came. Instead, she says she became more confident in who she already was.

That’s why she’s heading close to home, to the University of Kentucky, for medical school in the fall. The plan is to become a pediatrician.

Her time on Honor Council, which decides on allegations about academic integrity, helped prepare her for working with children as patients because it gave her experience assessing situations and people, she says.

“Honor Council was good training for being a doctor, because I’ll have to make diagnoses with all sorts of information missing,” she says. “Really, it’s about the people. Emory is the perfect intersection of a small liberal arts school with large research opportunities, but really, the best thing about Emory is the people.”

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