George Walters-Marrah ’20 has a little down time. He could binge One Piece — he’s on a second go-round of all 929 episodes of the Japanese animated series. But no, today he’s in his apartment teaching himself math. Calculus and linear algebra, to be exact. He doesn’t have to do this.

“Once I put my mind to something, I’ll do whatever it takes to master it,” he says.

And that explains how he came to UCF as a first-generation university student, how he discovered something once-mysterious to him called research and has become so enamored with it that he’s worked alongside Ivy Leaguers and world-respected scientists en route to a degree in molecular microbiology. This fall, he’ll start work on his doctorate at Stanford.

“Once I put my mind to something, I’ll do whatever it takes to master it.” — George Walters-Marrah ’20

This is the same young man who didn’t even know what a GPA was until his senior year of high school.

“My mother and grandmother stressed the importance of college,” says Walters-Marrah, who grew up with an older sister, Rachel, and younger brother, Aaron, in Miami. “My mom just wasn’t sure where she’d get the resources to send us all to college.”

Walters-Marrah had a scholarship offer to play soccer in the Northeast, but he didn’t sense a good fit. Then a PE teacher pointed out his GPA, explained what it meant, and said, “You have opportunities, George.”

That was all he needed to hear. Completing a four-year degree with limited debt became his new obsession.

One Day in a Dark Room

Walters-Marrah can’t tell you why he kept bothering his mother, Althea, for a microscope and telescope as a child. Despite limited finances, she gave in.

“Do what interests you,” she would say.

Although young Walters-Marrah couldn’t see living cells or distant planets with the toy scopes, they did open his imagination. He also heard of these people called scientists.

“I didn’t know where they worked or if they were even real. To me, scientists were myths.” He might never have known the truth had he not visited UCF with a high-school friend. Walters-Marrah liked what he saw and heard.

“When he gets to that point there’s no denying him,” says his mother. Some of Walters-Marrah’s drive comes from his mother, who grew up on a farm in Jamaica, became a track star, and was the first member of her family to move to the United States. She put her own college aspirations aside while raising three kids, but would not let them put theirs aside (Rachel earned an associate degree from Miami Dade College and Aaron is currently enrolled there).

“Mom said I could go to UCF, but I’d have to find ways to fund it,” Walters-Marrah says.

That’s all she had to say. First, Walters-Marrah earned a Silver Pegasus Scholarship as an incoming freshman. He had to grind through his first few weeks at UCF, listening intently to lectures and making note cards after class, whatever it took to keep his grades up. Then he walked into a lab for the first time. There, in the dark, he saw an object glowing and crawling under a microscope. Bacteria. He looked around and thought:

This is research. These are scientists. They aren’t myths. They’re real.

“I decided right then, ‘This is what I want to do,’ ” he says.

“From my first interactions with George, it was clear that he had ambitious goals.” – Kyle Rohde, UCF associate professor

He didn’t have to wait long to discover research opportunities, thanks to mentors such as Kimberly Schneider, director of Undergraduate Research. “George applied for programs, scholarships and internships that eventually built out an incredible resume,” says Schneider. “He became a role model.”

The Learning Environment and Academic Research Network provided him exposure to research projects. He participated in the McNair Scholars Program, summer work studies, and mentored other students from underserved communities. He heard about Associate Professor Kyle Rohde’s research on bacteria and diseases, so he emailed and called to ask if he could be a part of it.

“From my first interactions with George, it was clear that he had ambitious goals,” says Rohde. “Rather than passively hoping his dreams would come true, he used initiative and grit to take full advantage of opportunities.”

Persistence Pays Off

There was this time when a scientist from MIT came to speak at UCF. She asked how many students in the room knew the cell cycle. How about what transcribes DNA? Walters-Marrah raised his hand to both questions.

“Who knows how to code?” she asked.

Walters-Marrah didn’t know coding. So he went back to his apartment and started teaching it to himself. Shortly after mastering it, he earned a prestigious Goldwater Scholarship. He used some of the money to do research at Cornell University, not for credit but simply to join a bacteria research project. During the research, he used his new coding knowledge to help his team analyze data more efficiently. The researchers at Cornell were impressed.

During his four years at UCF, he’s also conducted research at the University of Pennsylvania and, through the National Science Foundation, at the University of Chicago. The 40-hour weeks in the lab didn’t seem like work, so he went in on weekends, too.

“I couldn’t get enough of it,” he says.

“I want to help underserved students learn about the accessibility of higher education.” – George Walters-Marrah ’20

His mom always told him: Do what you love. And so his research isn’t going to end any time soon. In September, he’ll turn a new page at Stanford University, diving deep into the tricky relationship between bacteria and immune systems — with barely any debt. After that he might become a research professor or do industry-based research.

“One thing is for sure,” he says, “I want to help underserved students learn about the accessibility of higher education.”

Michael Aldarondo-Jeffries, director of the McNair Scholars Program, has watched Walters-Marrah almost from Day 1. “Since his arrival at UCF,” says Aldarondo-Jeffries, “George has made it his mission to make a difference for others. I cannot think of another student who better embodies UCF and its creed.”

The incoming freshman who thought science resided next to fiction is leaving as a scientist. His message: If you want it badly enough, you can master anything. Even those concepts you might think are myths.