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Carolina Covenant Scholar Thidar Aye’s journey to Chapel Hill began in Myanmar. At UNC, she fell in love with research and hopes to one day enter a Ph.D. program in biology.

Thidar Aye in her lab coat smiles at the camera.
“Being in a lab is one of my favorite things,” says senior biology major Thidar Aye. (photo by Donn Young)

At age 7, Thidar Aye fled Myanmar with her family for Malaysia, escaping in a small rowboat in the early morning darkness. She lived in a refugee camp for two years. She recalled a house raid in Malaysia when her parents were arrested for two weeks before being rescued by the United Nations. She and her older sister stayed in the house alone.

Her family eventually made their way to the United States and settled in Baltimore. In high school, Aye excelled at AP classes and got accepted to Carolina.

“When we came to the United States, everything was new,” said Aye, a senior biology major. “No one in my family spoke English. It was very difficult. Eventually, I became my parents’ translator. As a first-generation student, I would not have had the opportunity to go to college without the Carolina Covenant program.”

At UNC, Aye fell in love with research. She worked in the lab of biology professor Frank Conlon and with postdoctoral researcher Whitney Edwards. Conlon studies developmental genetics, specifically congenital heart disease.

As she marches at Commencement, Aye says she will be thinking of her parents, who helped her family escape from Myanmar when she was only 7. (photo by Donn Young)

“It’s such an exciting time to be a biologist,” said Aye, smiling. “The field is growing and there are so many different avenues you can take. It informs a lot of disease treatment; it’s so mind-blowing.”

After graduation, Aye, who is also a Ronald McNair Scholar, will be working as a research technician in the lab of professor Gaorav Gupta in the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. Her long-term goal is to pursue a Ph.D. in biology.

“Being in a lab is one of my favorite things. I didn’t even really know what research was and the possibilities it could offer until I came to college,” she said. “When you join a lab, it’s about applying what you learn in textbooks, engaging with the science and seeing how the concepts come together.”

Aye is appreciative of faculty members like Brian Hogan in chemistry and Greg Copenhaver in biology, who helped her along in her academic journey. (Copenhaver is also associate dean of research and innovation in the College.)

“I had Dr. Hogan’s biochemistry class, and he was such a good teacher at explaining complex topics. He’s so passionate about what he does, and I feel like I can ask him advice about anything,” Aye said. “Dr. Copenhaver has been a good source of support to me. He gave me advice on graduate schools and has been so instrumental in my career choice.”

When she thinks back on her time at Carolina, Aye said her favorite campus spot is probably Davis Library.

“My friends and I have cried there, laughed there, shared a lot of late-night studies and early morning freakouts before exams,” she said. “It’s been such a challenging time, but it’s also been so rewarding. There are so many options for students from diverse backgrounds to explore who they are and to get involved.”

In offering advice to incoming first-year students, Aye encourages them to believe “you belong here.”

“You got in here for a reason. You have a spot here. Don’t let any failures make you feel like you don’t belong. Believe in yourself, reach out and make connections with other people.”

As she marches at Commencement, Aye will be thinking of her parents, who will be sitting in the audience. She said they gave up so much to give her a shot at her dreams.

“For me, it will be very emotional,” she said. “I think I will make my parents very proud. They took such risks for me to have the opportunities I’ve had.”

By Kim Spurr, College of Arts & Sciences




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