Top of her class

Taryn O'Neill, UNB Saint John's valedictorian for Spring Convocation.UNB Saint John's valedictorian won't need to travel too far after graduation - Taryn O'Neill will be returning to the school to begin her master of science degree in the fall.

That doesn't count her busy summer, either. She'll be working not one, but two jobs at UNB Saint John this summer, balancing her position as a community engagement liaison with biology lab work studying the biological activity of indigenous medicinal plants.

Balancing research and community engagement has been a running theme for O'Neill, an honours graduate-to-be who helped found a reading program for children in the priority neighbourhood of Crescent Valley, near the UNB Saint John campus. She also spent two years on the UNB Saint John Biology Society executive, where she co-ordinated fundraisers for families in need and the Cherry Brook Zoo.

She says it took her a little while to get involved with the community on campus, but once she did, everything fell into place.

"My first couple of years, I was really school-driven," she says. "I just wanted to go to class and go home. In third year, I got more comfortable with the atmosphere of UNB and started getting involved.

"Once you get to know somebody, it's just a huge domino effect. One of my favourite things about UNB is how open the faculty and staff are in trying to improve community engagement."

Engaged attitude

"My heart is totally set on research," says O'Neill, who hopes to expand her honours work this summer and eventually use it to publish a scientific paper. She'll do her summer work and master's project with Dr. Chris Gray, who co-supervised her honours research project this past year. 

She won't let being a graduate student hold her back from her community work, though. She's working with the faculty of science, applied science and engineering to start a UNB Saint John chapter of Let's Talk Science, a charitable organization focusing on improving science literacy.

Literacy plays a big role in a lot of her activities. The Backyard Book Club, which she co-founded in 2009 with the help of Leah Richardson and UNB staff, invites children from Saint John's Crescent Valley neighbourhood to join UNB students to read a few nights a week.

"When it started, kids would see us all reading on the front lawn and they would come out to see us. Now they expect us to come and they're there waiting for us when we show up," she says. She's since overseen the development of that program into a reading mentorship program.

That's only part of the community work O'Neill has been able to do through UNB Saint John. As one of three community engagement liaisons at the school this summer, she's continuing her work at Crescent Valley, working alongside community groups and politicians including Peter McGuire, a Saint John city councillor.

Through the Biology Society, she's helping restock the library at an as-yet unnamed local school.

"They don't have the greatest library," she says, so "we are interested in expanding it."

So what's she doing to fix it? With a $200 budget, she's managed to stack up close to $2,000 worth of books for the school.

"I've been going on Kijiji every single day, finding cheap books as good as new."

‘Your voice will be heard'

Small enough that it's a welcoming community of its own, UNB Saint John lets students like O'Neill get involved in the community at large.

"There are a lot of great initiatives UNB Saint John started in the last year and a half, which I absolutely love," says O'Neill. And if she weren't at the school, "I wouldn't be able to be a part of those initiatives."

Whether it's for research or community involvement, O'Neill is thankful of the opportunities she's been given through UNB.

"The faculty and staff are open to new ideas and think outside of the box. If you want to try new initiatives, they try to make it happen."

Here, she says, "your voice will be heard."

Contributed by Josh O'Kane. This story was made possible thanks to the financial support of the UNB Associated Alumni.