Miriam Talalay speaks at the Baltimore County Woman of the Year Awards Ceremony, during which she won the 2022 Baltimore County Young Woman of the Year Award in June at the Historic Courthouse in Towson, Maryland. (Courtesy of Lauren Watley)

ORONO — Like many first-year students at the University of Maine, Miriam Talalay has several passions — animals, drawing and playing violin, just to name a few. What sets her apart is a medal from Congress recognizing her excellence in all that she does.

The Congressional Award encourages and recognizes youth for initiative, service and achievement, and the gold medal is the highest form of this accolade with the most demanding requirements. Earning the gold medal requires the completion of 800 activity hours over a two-year period, including 400 hours of voluntary public service; 200 hours of personal development; 200 hours of physical fitness; and a five-day, four-night expedition or exploration trip. 

Talalay, a first-year zoology student from Luterville, Maryland, was one of the 549 gold medal awardees from 41 states recognized during the Gold Medal Celebration in August

To earn her award, Talalay, also a student with the Honors College, volunteered with a local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals providing foster care to animals; learned how to play Irish jigs and Scottish reels on her violin; maintained a workout regiment of cycling; yoga, pilates and weight training; and embarked on a multi-day hiking trip through Surry, Maine, while sketching and photographing flora and fauna for her online Nature Journaling and Biology of Birds courses with Cornell’s Ornithology Lab. 

She began working toward her gold medal in September 2021, when she was a high school junior, and completed her tasks during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I was overjoyed, so grateful for receiving something I worked so hard toward,” Talalay says about receiving the medal. “It’s getting rewarded for doing the stuff I already love. I also thought it was a great learning experience and opportunity to kickstart projects I already wanted to start.”

Talalay also received the 2022 Baltimore County Young Woman of the Year Award before coming to UMaine. Talalay, a senior at Dulaney High School at the time, was recognized during the 40th Annual Woman of the Year Awards Ceremony in June. 

Dedicating time to volunteer comes easy for Talalay; she says it’s part of her DNA. She has fostered animals with her mom since she was 10 years old, starting after they learned that she was too young to help out at her local SPCA at the time.  

Over the past eight years, Talalay has cared for more than 250 foster animals. In the beginning, she gave them food and water, groomed them, played with them, introduced them to other people for socialization and cleaned cat litter boxes. 

When she was older, she also was able to give animals their medications and vaccinations and take them to veterinarian appointments. Her mom continues to foster while Talalay is studying at UMaine. 

“I’ve always loved animals,” Talalay says. “When I was 3 years old, I would carry around a 700-page encyclopedia and look at all of the animal pictures.” 

Her interest in studying at UMaine first sparked from spending a part of her summers at her family’s vacation home in Surry throughout her childhood. She says she loves Maine’s wildlife and natural landscapes, which helped make studying at UMaine appealing. Programs that offered extensive lab and outdoor research also convinced her to enroll at the university. 

“I’m just enthralled by all of the opportunities here at UMaine,” she says. 

At the university, Talalay has participated in several activities that appeal to her love of nature and animals. She explores the outdoors and records and draws the plants and animals she sees for her natural history course. She also has been participating in the university’s chapter of the Wildlife Society, taking care of pigs at Witter Farm and birdwatching on campus.  

“It’s been great. I’m really, really happy here,” Talalay says. “All of the professors I’ve met so far are really, really interesting and are hopefully people I can consult with later on in life.” 

When she graduates, Talalay hopes to pursue a career that harmonizes her passions for animals and art, such as an illustrator for scientific literature or a wildlife photographer like one of her idols, National Geographic Photographer Joel Sartore.

Before coming to UMaine, Talalay interned with the Blue Hill Heritage Trust for a couple of years by teaching drawing classes, particularly through creating how-to videos, and conducting other programs for children. She also spends much of her free time creating pen and ink drawings and digital art. 

Talalay says she hopes that while studying at UMaine, she will learn how to more effectively use lab equipment, connect and collaborate with various members of the campus community and improve her analytical and observational skills. 

“I hope to get a lot of valuable skills, whether it be working in the lab or field or learning social skills I can use in my career or daily life,” she says.