Against all odds, Audree’Auna Morris-Garrett discovered her calling and the support she needed to accomplish her goals at a small institution with huge opportunities.
Her journey to Fort Valley State University almost did not happen, but a life-altering experience uncovered a hidden passion for plant science. Morris-Garrett, with a desire to become a medical doctor, first became interested in research while at Albany State University as a freshman biology major studying the impact of green tea on cancer cells. Unbeknownst to her, this research would later impact her life.
The world changed for the Douglasville, Georgia, native when her 10-month-old son, Inde Broadnax, was diagnosed with stage 3 neuroblastoma during her sophomore year in 2010.
“I became occupied with his healing process and decided to leave school in 2011 to move to Texas for his treatments. At that point, I had no intention of going back because I had no focus or passion for the studies I had already begun,” she said.
As a new mom walking through the cancer diagnosis with her child, another world was opened to Morris-Garrett. Doing her own research, she learned more about living a vegan lifestyle. She became involved with urban gardening, met farmers and visited farmers markets. She even worked with a professional chef at a raw vegan restaurant to create healthy recipes when they lived in Atlanta.
Her introduction to cancer research remained an interest as she dove deeper into finding natural remedies to help her son thrive.
“I went down the rabbit hole of plant medicine,” she said. “What can I introduce to his body and what can I support him with while he is going through radiation and chemotherapy? What helped the most was paying attention to the food and supplements that went into his body.”
Morris-Garrett said the doctors were amazed at Inde’s physical health considering his treatment plan. “That is when I realized the food we eat and what we put in our bodies directly impacts our well-being,” she said.
In 2014, she and Inde returned to middle Georgia during his remission and traveled back and forth to Texas monthly or bimonthly. Then in 2017, she received the news she had been longing for – Inde was cancer-free.
“This is what opened my eyes to becoming a plant scientist. After my son was deemed cancer-free, I transferred to FVSU and enrolled in the plant science-biotechnology program,” Morris-Garrett said.
As a nontraditional student, the 31-year-old admitted that returning to college was intimidating initially.
“I had to adjust to new ways of doing things. Going through this life experience, I thought I could not keep up,” she said. “But, as soon as I got here, I knew I was in the right place. I got confirmation after confirmation.”
Balancing family and school made her develop better time management, communication skills and more efficient ways to study. She strongly commended Dr. Sarwan Dhir, plant biotechnology professor, and Dr. James Brown, her former horticulture professor, for their mentoring and support. She also thanked Dr. Dwayne Daniels, chair of chemistry and the director of the Peach State Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program.
“If it wasn’t for his mentorship, I would not have a plan to further my education. He was a shoulder to lean on when there was chaos to give me that push to get out of my comfort zone and ask for what I needed,” Morris-Garrett said.
Her involvement at FVSU was an enlightening experience. “I just couldn't get enough. The opportunities started rolling in. Things I couldn’t see before were revealed here. I had that second chance to get my grades together and to really work on something that I am passionate about,” she said.
The mother to Inde and Nova Bea Garrett later took a three-year break from school after having her third child, Karbyn Garrett, with husband Detrolia Garrett to focus on her family. In spring 2021, she returned to the program to complete her final courses after receiving encouragement from Dhir.
This led to research exposure, such as studying nanotechnology and presenting at conferences, and internship opportunities, including participating in the McNair Scholars Program and the National Science Foundation’s LSAMP program. Also, in summer 2021, she interned at the University of Vermont for eight weeks, where she studied crop diversity.
“It was exciting to see the programs that were for me, because I put the work in,” Morris-Garrett said. “I have worked on interesting research that exposed me to different career paths in plant science.”
The FVSU senior will work this summer in the University of Georgia’s Undergraduate Research Scholars Program. It is a 10-week internship focused on plant breeding. Graduating with a 3.8 grade point average, Morris-Garrett will earn her degree on May 14. She plans to further her education by pursuing graduate school.
The future plant conservationist looked back on her experiences, including her son, who is now 13 years old, healthy and taller than her.
“I did not know that college could be like this, like family, people who care about me,” she said. “That’s why I am so glad that I came here. It was like water. I was able to do what I needed to do.”
Although she lacked confidence at first, the proud Wildcat said she needed to do this if not for her future self, then for the little girl inside of her.
“I must be that driving force for myself. All that I went through – every tear and the snooze button – it meant I did my best,” she said.