BOZEMAN — Bolstering a record of Montana State University being a top producer of recipients of the nation's premier scholarship for undergraduates in STEM fields, four MSU students have been named Goldwater scholars.
The 2021 class of Goldwater recipients announced Friday includes Laina Hall and Pushya Krishna of Bozeman, Elliott Pryor of Helena and Matthew Thompson of Woodinville, Washington. This is the third year in a row that four MSU students — the most that any institution may nominate annually — have received the honor, which is among the most prestigious available to undergraduates pursuing research careers in science, technology, engineering and math.
"We are very proud of Laina, Pushya, Elliott and Matthew’s achievements and are also deeply grateful to their faculty and research mentors," said Ilse-Mari Lee, dean of the Honors College, in which all four are students. "It has been my privilege to watch them soar. Their futures are incredibly bright."
Since the scholarship's inception in 1989, 82 MSU students have received Goldwater scholarships, placing MSU among top institutions in the country in terms of the number of scholarships awarded, ahead of schools like Johns Hopkins, Yale and Cornell.
"Montana State is proud to continue preparing extraordinary Goldwater scholars," said MSU President Waded Cruzado. "We're honored that each of these four gifted students, who are conducting research that could have a lasting positive impact on our world, have chosen our land-grant university to help support them on their journey."
This year's 410 Goldwater recipients nationwide were selected from a pool of 1,256 college sophomores and juniors nominated by 438 academic institutions. The award from the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation comes with up to $7,500 per year for tuition, books and room and board.
"Year after year, I continue to be impressed by our tremendous success in producing Goldwater scholars," said Brett Gunnink, dean of MSU's Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering, which is home to two of the scholarship recipients, Pryor and Thompson. "It's a reflection of our outstanding students as well as the outstanding faculty who support them. I'm very proud of each of these students."
"Four students receiving this award in one year is fantastic," said Yves Idzerda, dean of MSU's College of Letters and Science, home to the other two scholars. "The MSU Goldwater recipients are not only students that have the potential to be tomorrow’s scientific leaders, they are truly well-rounded individuals. They’re great examples of what comes from our liberal arts tradition and our emphasis on including undergraduates in research."
Laina Hall, a junior with a dual major in biochemistry and microbiology, learned she'd won the scholarship while riding the chairlift at Bridger Bowl on Friday morning. She got her start with research in the lab of Blake Wiedenheft, associate professor Department of Microbiology and Immunology. Wiedenheft's work focuses on CRISPR, the bacterial immune system that has been repurposed into a biomolecular tool with a variety of applications, including new methods of testing for COVID-19.
Working in the Wiedenheft lab was when Hall "fell in love with the adventure of research, the grit it requires and the amazing feeling of learning something new," she said. "It got me hooked and showed me that's what I want to keep doing after MSU."
The experience of studying the dynamic interplay between viruses and bacteria prompted Hall to enroll in a graduate-level virology class taught by Michelle Flenniken, associate professor in the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology in MSU's College of Agriculture. "She really inspired me to want to aspire to a similar career to hers," Hall said. Flenniken noted that Hall was the only undergraduate in the class and described her as "a highly motivated, smart and curious" student and scientist. "These traits, coupled with a fiery determination to accomplish her goals, will undoubtedly fuel her career in research," Flenniken said.
When the coronavirus pandemic struck last year, the Wiedenheft lab shifted its focus to developing a CRISPR-based method of detecting the virus in patient samples, and Hall found herself in the middle of a cutting-edge biomedical research effort. "It was really rewarding to work with so many people in the lab to contribute to something so relevant," she said.
Hall intends to pursue a doctorate in microbiology and conduct research as part of a career in academia. "I really just love learning about viruses and bacteria," she said. "There's a whole world of microorganisms that we can't always see but can still learn about."
Pushya Krishna, a junior and dual major in English literature and cell biology and neuroscience, started doing research as a seventh grader in the lab of Ed Schmidt, professor of microbiology and immunology. Throughout middle school and high school, he assisted Schmidt with biochemical studies related to liver cancer, which, he said, "lit my passion for science and research." Since his freshman year at MSU, Krishna, like Hall, has worked on CRISPR research in the Wiedenheft lab.
"Both those experiences have been transformative," said Krishna, who serves as an Associated Students of MSU senator. "My relationship with MSU has really revolved around research. I think MSU fosters undergraduate research like nowhere else, and I'm privileged to be able to benefit from it."
Wiedenheft described Krishna as having the uncommon combination of "composure, grace and curiosity" that characterizes exceptional young leaders in a profession. "Pushya is able to seamlessly integrate computer science, math and biology in a way that defines the direction of science in the 21st century," Wiedenheft said. "He has demonstrated that he has the ambition, insight and intellect to become a scientific pioneer."
Motivated by seeing those close to him suffer from Parkinson's disease, Krishna said he intends to earn a medical degree and pursue a career in research focused on curing neurological diseases. It's a competitive field, and "without the foundational experiences I've had as an undergraduate, the freedom to test hypotheses in a lab and to find my feet as a scientist, I think it would be difficult to jump into that world," he said. "My undergraduate experience will be crucial for achieving my ambitions in the future."
Elliott Pryor, a junior majoring in computer science and applied mathematics, studies a computing technique called machine learning that allows computer code to dynamically adapt and improve through advanced algorithms. With professor Brendan Mumey and assistant professor Sean Yaw, both in the Gianforte School of Computing, Pryor worked on a project to develop an algorithm that could be used to reduce peaks in electricity consumption by coordinating use of household appliances such as clothes dryers.
"My research experience at MSU has really been everything to me. I've loved it," Pryor said. "It has been how I get beyond the basics of the classroom and learn a bunch of cool, new things. It's like having a big puzzle to solve."
John Sheppard, professor of computer science, has served as a mentor to Pryor and worked with him on developing machine learning algorithms. While a sophomore, Pryor completed two senior-level computing classes that Sheppard teaches, he noted. Sheppard described Pryor as "an exceptionally bright young man" who is also "humble, friendly, pleasant to be around," adding that he "has a wonderful sense of humor and always has a smile on his face."
Elliott said he would like to earn his doctorate in computer science and channel his interests into solving practical problems on issues such as energy efficiency. "The goal of machine learning is to look at data in intelligent ways so we can make meaningful decisions," he said.
Matthew Thompson, a junior majoring in chemical engineering, found a home for his research pursuits in the lab of Ron June, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering. June's work focuses on developing new diagnostic and treatment strategies for the painful condition of osteoarthritis, which is caused by deterioration of the cartilage that cushions joints.
"The research opportunities at MSU were one of the main reasons I came here, so I was thrilled to be able to get involved my freshman year," Thompson said. "Ron is a caring mentor. He was always willing to discuss research topics, and he gave me projects that matched my interests."
Thompson helped develop a new method of targeted drug delivery for treating osteoarthritis and other joint diseases. He also analyzed data collected as part of a survey of Montana ranchers to understand the prevalence and progression of the condition. "Matt's combination of practical and classroom skills is rare, and I expect he will go far," June said. "I have no doubt that Matt will have a distinguished career ... and that his accomplishments will continue to showcase MSU’s undergraduate research program." Thompson said he's planning to earn a doctorate in materials science and engineering while researching biological-material interactions in a biomedical setting.
All four of this year's Goldwater winners were also among the 23 recipients in 2018 of MSU's Presidential Scholarship, the university's most prestigious scholarship. All expressed appreciation for the support they have since received from faculty mentors, Honors College Dean Ilse-Mari Lee, and others. Summing up the mood, Pryor said he was "super excited, and very thankful for everyone who's helped me along the way."
The Goldwater scholarships honor longtime Arizona senator and 1964 presidential candidate Barry Goldwater and were first awarded in 1989. They recognize students’ commitment to research in the natural sciences, engineering and math, their intellectual intensity and their potential for future contributions in their chosen fields.