As a little girl, Alexis Hilts, one of the incoming students in the UNLV School of Medicine’s third class, often asked her father about a plaque on the wall of their home that depicted a lake in rural Canada. Engraved on the artwork were the words “Hilts Lake.”
The body of water was named after her grandfather, who had been a physician in a small Canadian town. “I never had the opportunity to know my grandfather because he passed away when my father was 2, but as a child I would picture Dr. Hilts as a superhero, working long nights saving children,” the first-year student wrote in her personal statement that was part of the medical school’s admission process. “From a young age I’ve wanted to be like my grandfather, a physician with a profound impact on the community.”
Born and raised in Las Vegas, the 24-year-old summa cum laude graduate of the UNLV Honors College ('18 BS Biology, '18 BA Political Science), is largely known through the media as the young woman who won the 2018 Miss Nevada competition that sent her as the state’s representative to the Miss America pageant.
Her love for pageants — through them she’s won more than $30,000 in scholarships, leaving her with a debt-free education — came from a movie starring Sandra Bullock she saw as a young girl, Miss Congeniality, and from attending the Miss America pageant in Las Vegas when she was 10.
“I asked my mother if she thought I could be in the Miss America pageant one day and she said I could if I really practiced the piano so I could be in the talent competition,” she recalled.
The talent competition in pageants helped fuel her passion for the piano while the interview portions helped her develop her speaking skills.
Before becoming Miss Nevada, she was Miss UNLV, Miss Las Vegas, and Miss Clark County.
Reading media coverage devoted only to her winning pageants, one could easily envision her living a life generally devoid of any gritty personal challenges, where the only concerns she would have had were with makeup or ensuring that her hair was just so — where she was always about “me” and no one else.
As so often happens, however, a presumption based on scant information is well off the mark.
She was 13 when her family life dramatically changed. Her parents’ tumultuous divorce left her caring for her 5-year-old sister. She fed her, took her to school, served as a parental figure.
“With our world in turmoil, I fought to keep a sense of consistency for the two of us,” she said. “Handling responsibilities beyond what was normal for my age played an integral part in my development. During this time, I was without parental guidance and relied on intrinsic motivation to achieve my goals. I realized that, like me, there were other students navigating the education system without engaged role models. In this discovery, I found an opportunity to serve others as I had done for my sister.”
Over the next decade — she also won the Miss Nevada Outstanding Teen competition — the teenager who found joy in studying science realized that the number of women and minorities in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) were depressingly low.
Nationwide studies showed that women and racial minorities other than Asians frequently faced discrimination in science and technology fields.
Engineering occupations have the lowest share of women at 14 percent. Women comprise only a quarter of workers in computer occupations.
Only 7 percent of black adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher are in the STEM workforce. College-educated Hispanics are just 6 percent of STEM workers.
After four years of researching the disparity of minority representation in STEM, the young woman who would earn bachelor’s degrees in biology and political science with a minor in neuroscience created the “More than a Princess” program to encourage students to pursue careers in STEM. She went into area schools to familiarize students with people in the sciences that they may not have heard about.
One of those individuals was Marie Daly, the first African American woman to receive a Ph.D. in chemistry in the nation. Born in New York City in 1921, Daly did groundbreaking work on the causes of heart attacks, helping disclose the relationship between high cholesterol and clogged arteries. That work opened up a better understanding of how foods and diet can affect the health of the heart and the circulatory system.
“I want all young people to see what they can accomplish, no matter their background,” said Hilts, who has tutored middle and high school students for five years in geometry, physics, biology, algebra, trigonometry, and Latin.
Hilts has come to realize that everyone is facing their own battles in life.
“My grandfather battled cancer. I fought for stability and normalcy for my sister and myself,” Hilts wrote in her personal statement. “These battles, that at one point seemed impossible, have shown me strength and motivated me to help others facing their own internal battles, especially children who need advocates. My childhood wasn’t perfect, but it shaped me into a person able to handle challenges and the desire to care for others.”