Southern California transplant has learned to love Merced, university

May 3, 2009 

Heather Orrell lives by the calendar application on her Mac computer.

Each day she reports to UC Merced at 7 a.m. She stays on campus until 6 p.m., attending classes and studying between them.

On weekends, she volunteers at the animal shelter.

And for a few too-short weeks in spring semester, she even finds time to compete on the school's club softball team, which she founded.

Add to that the tutoring sessions she leads and the events she attends with her sorority Delta Gamma.

"I don't sleep very much," Orrell admitted. "My days are definitely very, very busy."

And they have been since the 22-year-old Thousand Oaks native started attending UC Merced in 2005.

UC Merced wooed the young and energetic student from Virginia Tech, where she had been offered a full-ride softball scholarship. Orrell said she couldn't escape the pull of the new campus after she attended Bobcat Day, the campus' yearly open house for admitted students.

"The closeness they approached me with was intriguing," Orrell said. "The way they seemed like a family taking me under their wings."

Orrell got involved on campus right away. She founded or helped start several student groups on campus, including the sorority, softball team and a student volunteer group that helps out at the animal shelter.

Having played softball continually since she was 8 years old, Orrell set about bringing a team to campus.

"I was trying to focus mainly on school, but I needed a little play too," Orrell explained.

Events unfolded a bit roughly, with only five women showing up for practice at times. Eventually the team hit its stride. Last April, it scored its first win against USC.

"We basically destroyed USC," Orrell said with an excited grin as she recounted the 8-0 rout.

This April, Orrell was awarded the campus' first female athlete of the year award.

"She's a tough player," said David Dunham, director of recreation and athletics at UC Merced. "I've seen her play through injuries. She is a fierce competitor."

Orrell also displays a soft side, especially when it comes to animals. That's why she helped create Happy Tails, the animal shelter volunteer group.

Mary Jo Campodonica, president of Trails of Happy Tails, a community group, said she remembered when the students at UC Merced approached her with their idea for the student club.

"I just remember looking around the room and thinking, 'There really are some great young people out there,'" Campodonica said.

Orrell and the other students usually help at the shelter by observing the animals there and taking notes on their personalities. Those notes are passed along to rescue groups, which save the animals and help them find adoptive homes.

Orrell confessed that one of the ways the club attracts new members is a little sneaky: it asks freshmen if they miss playing with their pets at home. That is, after all, the reason she initially became involved.

"She just adores animals," Campodonica said. "It shows the moment you meet her."

During her sophomore year, Orrell started doing research on campus. In the two years since, she has studied ways to optimize the transcription of proteins from RNA, a process that might be applied to stop the spread of disease.

"Many of my friends at other universities talked about how hard it was to get into a lab," Orrell said. "For me, it was like, boom! I was in."

She will graduate on May 16 with a degree in biological sciences with an emphasis in human biophysics.

Next fall she will return to UC Merced as a Ph.D. candidate in biophysics.

Orrell said she ultimately would love to be a professor at a research university.

Her dream school?

"Probably UC Merced," Orrell said. "I really like it here."

Even without getting much sleep.

Reporter Danielle Gaines can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is one of several that will chronicle the lives of members of the UC Merced inaugural graduating class. As pioneers at UC Merced, their contributions will leave a lasting effect on the Merced community.