Niblack Scholar credits his mother’s love — and fate — for his successful college career
Liam Whiteman was a gifted student. He was also apathetic, with just enough focus to escape with a diploma from an alternative high school. He casually meandered through life until a tragedy lit a fire under his reserve and a scholarship broadened his horizon.
“The only reason I did receive a high school diploma was because I had teachers and a mother who cared deeply for my success,” he said.
After graduation, he dabbled at college and moved briefly to the West Coast. An only child, Whiteman talked with his single mom, Mary, every day. One sweltering Sunday in August 2013, after he had returned to Oklahoma, he didn’t hear from her. Going to her house, he found her on the floor of her bedroom. A stroke had stolen the use of the right side of her body and decimated her brain. Just 53, she would no longer be able to live alone. He moved into her house in one weekend, transforming overnight into her primary caregiver while still working full time and attending college.
Watching his vivacious mother lose her independence in a single moment distilled life to one truth for him: Build a life that makes you happy.
He saw his next direction clearly.
“I have known since the day I was born that I was a scientist,” Whiteman said. “That is the only thing I have ever known about myself. Everything is up for question except that one thing. I am a scientist.”
He didn’t have any idea where it could take him. “I didn’t know where to look or who to talk to,” he said. “What does it mean to be a scientist? What can you do with that?”
He finished his associate degree and set his sights on a bachelor’s. One of his preferred choices was studying entomology at Oklahoma State.
“I was like, bugs? Cool. Why wouldn’t I do that? It immediately made sense to me,” Whiteman said.
“I’ve always been into conservation and ecology. You can’t separate ecology and conservation without talking about bugs. They’re the keystone or the fulcrum that holds it all together.”
A campus tour decided his course.
“I came to OSU and went on the tour and said, ‘This is where I belong.’ This school has so much to offer students — the way it feels, the community. There are so many little things OSU does for its students that blow me away — it could be the counseling services or as simple as free color printing. I love this school. I feel like an evangelical preacher when I talk about OSU.”
Meanwhile, his mother needed more care than he could provide. In 2016, she moved into an assisted living facility. Three months later, on the day of his college tour, she fell and broke her hip. Surgery and stints in rehabilitation clinics followed before she went to a nursing home.
From 2016 until December 2018, Whiteman commuted daily from Oklahoma City for classes. His adviser, Dr. Wyatt Hoback, suggested he apply for a Niblack Research Scholarship, which opens opportunities for undergraduate research — and he got it.
The scholarship funds made it possible for him to find an apartment in Stillwater and turn the time he had spent commuting into lab hours, study time or visits with his mother.
“No. 1, it’s not even about the money,” he said. “It’s just the opportunity to do my own research and do the ropes of the scientific method in action, not just what you heard in middle school. Hands-on field work. Hands-on lab work.”
"It’s just the opportunity to do my own research and do the ropes of the scientific method in action, not just what you heard in middle school."
He’s studying the mosquito Culex erraticus. At a research area at Camp Gruber in Braggs, Oklahoma, more than 7,000 adult mosquitoes but not a single larva has been found. The question for the summer is to find where the females are laying the eggs.
“We need to be able to identify the entire life history of these mosquitoes so we can control them,” Whiteman said. “We don’t know if they could potentially transmit disease.”
The Niblack scholarship has opened doors that Whiteman could not open on his own. He is set to graduate in May.
Whiteman remains devoted to his mother. He kept her house, returning home Thursdays through Sundays to see to many of her essential needs himself, from bathing to cutting her nails. He hopes that someday he can afford in-home care and give her back the gift of home.
“She sacrificed everything for me,” he said. “I’m holding on to that hope that I can bring her home, and I can give her a feeling of independence, privacy and as much of her life back as I can. You’re told if you go to college, you get a degree, and you’ll have a secure job at the end of it. I’m trying to do something that will make me happy in my life and give me a financially secure future so that I can support her.”