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Released January 29, 2003

WORKING MOTHER FLEES EMPTY NEST
FOR MARINE SCIENCE CLASSROOM

By Christopher Mapp

OCEAN SPRINGS - Cheryl Jones knew adjusting to her new life would be hard when her two grown children left home together to attend The University of Southern Mississippi three years ago. She just didn't know how hard.

"When the kids left, I got really sad. I cried all the time," said Jones, a Pascagoula resident whose children are now both juniors at the Hattiesburg campus. "It's really embarrassing, I know."

So, with her children gone and her future wide open, Jones made a bold decision last year. She quit her high-paying job as a chemical lab technician and returned to the scholarly life herself.

These days, instead of shuffling around an empty nest or washing dishes in a quiet kitchen, Jones tools around the Southern Miss Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, washing test tubes in an empty classroom.

This spring, after spending the last 12 years in the work-a-day world, Jones, 43, returned to college as a graduate assistant to acquire a master's degree in coastal sciences at GCRL. With an emphasis in environmental chemistry, Jones is studying bioremediation under Dr. Julia Lytle, a scientist at GCRL for the last 30 years.

More so than the science itself, Jones was attracted to the way in which Lytle and her husband, Dr. Tom Lytle, approached their research.

"I was really impressed with Dr. (Julia) Lytle," Jones said. "I made up my mind to study with her regardless, no matter what the area. She's not only brilliant, but she is really emotional – not reserved, like a lot of scientists. She's very passionate."

Burning beneath Jones's soft-spoken persona too is a passion for science, which she views as a tool for helping future generations. She said bioremediation – the use of microbial life to degrade pollutants – is of concern to us all.

"I really want to give something back," she said. "I asked myself, ‘What can I do to help your children and my children?'"

Although Jones has been out of the classroom for more than a decade, she's finding that academic research – and the accompanying benefits to society – is more rewarding than the daily grind of her old job at the chemical plant.

"It (the chemical plant) is kind of like a high-tech McDonald's, where you're doing 15 different things at once," she said. "You're under a lot of pressure not to make mistakes. One wrong calculation could cost the company a lot of money.

"Here in the classroom, you can take your time, without some engineer standing over you. I just wanted to do more. There's more to life than just making money. I want to contribute to saving the environment, so I went into environmental chemistry."

When Julia Lytle speaks of her newest graduate assistant, she mirrors Jones's mutual admiration. She said that it's not easy to leave the life you're accustomed to, but that Jones has tackled it with energy, enthusiasm and courage.

"It's hard to be a graduate student and still have the responsibilities of kids," Lytle said. And although graduate stipends have risen from about $200 per month in the 1970s, when Lytle was a graduate assistant, to about $1,150 today, "losing the financial support of a job means you have to give up a lot," she said.

While Jones may have given up some financial support in the short term, she's getting lots of emotional support at home. Her two children, Lori Beth DeHertogh, 22, and Mark DeHertogh, 20, think their mother's return to the classroom is inspiring.

Mark, a successful jazz saxophonist who's already cut two CDs while studying at Southern Miss, said he's been willing to pay his own way through school so his mother could focus on her new academic career.

"Initially, I thought her going back to school was a good thing because she had been working 12-hour shifts at her job, and she had to work when the kids were in the house. But when we moved out, she saw it as an opportunity for early retirement and a chance to go back to school," he said.

Lori Beth, an accomplished musician who plays bassoon in different symphonies, said it was strange to compare grades last semester with her own mother, rather than just report them.

"The first thing I did was ask her what she got, and she had all A's, and I had all A's and one C," Lori Beth said. "So she edged me out. She can be pretty intimidating."

From time to time, however, Jones' children do give her a good-natured ribbing about her new life as a scientific researcher.

"They're very supportive, but they joke and say I'm a total nerd, the way I dress," said Jones, bearing a striking resemblance to actress Sissy Spacek as she relaxed in a smart ensemble – a casual black sweater and jeans – in Lytle's laboratory.

Perhaps they should hold their barbs about mom's attire until after they compare grades this semester. "Who knows, I might get the last laugh!" Jones quipped.

-30-

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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM

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