Lauren Runkle: Breaking into the STEM Field and Vegetarianism

Photo by Soleil Nagoda

Senior, Lauren Runkle is a woman of many passions — from her routine treasure hunts at the local goodwill in search of her next thrifted gem to her determination to become a successful woman in the STEM field.

Photo by Soleil Nagoda

As a material science and engineering major, Runkle has been involved with various undergraduate research projects. One major project involved working with 2D materials for next generation electronics, which landed her a spot to speak at a research conference last March in Washington, D.C. Through her love of science and determination toward pursuing a career in the STEM field, Runkle did not let anyone get in her way — guidance counselors and peers included.

“In high school when I expressed I was thinking about majoring in engineering, my friends tried to talk me out of it. My family tried to talk me out of it. My guidance counselor tried to talk me out of it, stating that she wasn’t sure I’d be able to keep up with the rigor of a STEM field, based upon her perception on my intelligence,” says Runkle.

Even after being told to consider switching her major altogether once arriving at Penn State, she knew she had to be the voice for women in the STEM world.

“Women belong in STEM because women are intelligent as heck and deserve these opportunities too, but they shouldn’t have to fight so hard against unfair stereotypes.” says Runkle.

The driven boss-woman is not only a prodigy within the science realm — she is also an honorable writer who has become the co-author of a paper by the IOPScience Nanotechnology and currently is a writing tutor at Penn State Learning. Runkle is a force to be reckoned with, but there is more to her story that goes beyond just pencils and math equations.

Runkle and her love of animals and the environment led her down the path of vegetarianism.

“As a vegetarian, I save the lives of about 28 chickens and over 120 fish a year, and I’m really proud of this,” says Runkle.

However, her journey toward this new lifestyle did not come easy. After dissecting a pig her junior year of high school, Runkle decided to further explore whether or not consuming meat was right for her. After a first attempt at a switch in her diet, the then senior knew the shift wasn’t going to come easy.

“My parents weren’t supportive, and I didn’t really have the education to cut meat from my diet, as I didn’t know what the healthy alternatives were. But once I got to college, where I was the one responsible for feeding myself, I made the switch,” says Runkle.

Photo by Soleil Nagoda

Runkle is also an EcoRep on campus and believes whole-heartedly that the Penn State community should turn toward a more sustainable and reusable environment — one in which she is lending her hand to improve. Her choice of becoming a vegetarian extends beyond her love of animals and choice of keeping them off her plate.

“After three years of being a vegetarian, I see now that there are so many other reasons why I love that I don’t eat meat. By sticking to a plant-based diet, I’m helping the environment,” says Runkle.

While she is passionate about vegetarianism and has embraced her lifestyle change, Runkle also recognizes the stigma behind her choices and the negative stereotypes forced upon vegetarians.

“I think I’m a quiet animal activist, if that makes any sense. I don’t shame people for eating meat. I’m not going to go around handing out flyers or pamphlets about factory farms or the cruelty of the dairy industry, but I make conscious choices about my consumption habits and purchases with animals in mind,” says Runkle.

Runkle says she is happy to share her research on the topic of vegetarianism with anyone who is willing to listen. She dedicated a 30-page research paper to the subject during her sophomore year and poured her heart out in the process.

“My biggest mantra with being a vegetarian is to lead by example and approach people politely,” she says.

Runkle wanted to learn more about why people were so quick to judge the opinions of those who felt better with meat off their plates.

“People would be attentive when I was explaining why I had made the switch, but as soon as I even hinted at why others should consider a vegetarian diet, everyone became very defensive and close-minded, and I really wanted to get to the root of that,” says the senior. “Over the years, I’ve become pretty calloused to people’s negativity around vegetarianism, but what I couldn’t quite grasp was why people were so against a meatless diet.”

Photo by Soleil Nagoda

Her studies have shown that while the majority of answers from those she interviewed for her paper revolved around the notion that meat is an essential part of being a human, it also uncovered research on a chemical that actually makes us addicted to meat — shocking, right?

“There is a chemical compound named hypoxanthine, which is a naturally-occurring stimulant found in meat — this stimulant is what makes eating it habit-forming,” says Runkle.

What does her journey towards vegetarianism really mean within the realm of Penn State and her friends and family? Her driven, passionate hard work has nudged her family a step closer towards accepting and trying out a meatless diet.

“I have encouraged friends and family to consider following Meatless Mondays as a small way they can be mini-vegetarians,” says Runkle.

If the college graduate could give one piece of advice, it would be to be cautious and aware of what you are putting in your body.

“I think it’s really easy to turn a blind eye to the food industry when it’s not frequently in the news or a common topic of discussion,” says Runkle. “When we’re not thinking too much about our consumption habits, it’s easy to keep them the way they are, which is typically the way we were raised.”

The drive and dedication behind her path towards vegetarianism is something worth admiring. You might just spot this girl-boss snooping through a rack of vintage clothing at a thrift store in State College one last time before embarking on her next chapter as a plant-loving, cross-stitching fiend determined to make her mark in the STEM field.


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