Photo provided by Bella Latham

By Jessica Roulhac 

It took one week for Bella Latham to choose the Wilson College of Textiles at NC State.

During the summer of 2013, Latham participated in the college’s Summer Textile Exploration Program (STEP). She lived on campus for the week and got a glimpse of the life-changing world of textiles before beginning her senior year at Enloe High School in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Today, she is pursuing her third degree at NC State: a doctorate in fiber and polymer science. Latham graduated with a bachelor’s degree in textile technology in 2018 and a  master’s degree in textile engineering in 2020.

Seven years at the university, and she is still captivated by the innovative work of her professors and peers.

“Every year, my eyes open so much more to how necessary and important textiles are in our lives,” Latham said.                                                                                                     

Building a foundation

While currently navigating her doctoral degree work in Associate Professor of Textile Engineering, Chemistry and Science Emiel DenHartog’s lab, Latham serves as an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) research fellow which is a very competitive national graduate fellowship. Her findings support the United States Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine (USARIEM).

Latham’s focus is on cold weather protective textiles. Working with the research team at USARIEM, it is a collective effort to optimize textiles that will protect troops serving in extreme cold and wet weather conditions. The team is also developing tools to prevent cold injuries.

Latham didn’t plan to work with military textiles, but her early introduction to NC State during the STEP program allowed her to see the many options within the field. As part of STEP, students can learn more about the degree programs that are offered within the Wilson College of Textiles.

Latham chose textile design during her week at NC State. She learned how fabrics are designed and created, and she walked away with a maxi-dress that she designed and developed.

 “It was so unique, and I felt really special that I got to participate in that program,” Latham said. “I met the career development staff, and we also met a lot of the professors … some of my professors still remember me from meeting that summer.”

Learning doesn’t stop

Latham quickly recognized the close-knit community within the Wilson College. This included the opportunity to receive wisdom and guidance from faculty who were open to providing mentorship.

Latham has been a teaching assistant, a graduate research assistant and a laboratory safety manager. She also served as a Dean’s Page in 2017-18 supporting the Dean’s Office in welcoming guests of the dean and other faculty and providing administrative assistance.

The additional personal and professional development from professors like DenHartog also prepared her to tackle big challenges and ultimately move forward with her doctoral research.

When DenHartog invited some of his fellow scientists to attend Latham’s presentation in Massachusetts at the US Army Natick Soldier Systems Center, it would be the beginning of another opportunity for Latham to learn.

“The specific fellowship that Bella is on was the result of a long-standing connection between myself and the researchers at USARIEM,” said DenHartog, who also serves as director of graduate programs and associate director of the Textile Protection and Comfort Center. “They expressed interest on a research topic where environmental medicine and textiles interface and mentioned the need for specific support.”

The conversation helped USARIEM researchers initiate the specific fellowship position that Latham now holds. DenHartog sees the value of partnerships and looks forward to nurturing more relationships to support graduate students in the future.

As Latham continues her work with cold weather textiles, the journey has been rewarding and a reminder of how textiles change lives.

“I didn’t know that I would like it as much as I do, but it’s so important,” she said. “I think that’s what I learned during the past few years — the critical importance of textiles to protect us day to day.”

There’s still much work to be done. Although COVID-19 has kept Latham physically away from her teammates, technology has allowed them to stay on a mission to protect our troops as they serve in the most extreme places around the world.

Latham has been preparing for moments like this since her early days on campus with STEP. Today, as an ORISE Fellow, she encourages students to take advantage of the resources and opportunities offered at NC State, including the welcoming invitation to learn from professors.

“I love the programs, the potential and the growth that I see,” Latham said. “Here I am doing my Ph.D. — and I’m just not done learning.”