Montana State University

Fabich's career plans gelled when she discovered a passion for research

November 16, 2011 -- By Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service


While studying for a degree in chemical engineering at MSU, Hilary Fabich's research into the properties of alginate gels, or gels that are produced from brown algae, has taken her from her home in Livingston around the world. Fabich has become one of just a few undergraduates to have a paper published in a major research journal. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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For one who came a very short distance to attend Montana State University, Hilary Fabich has gone a very long way.

Fabich, a senior majoring in chemical engineering, grew up in the Paradise Valley south of Livingston wrangling wildlife with her game warden father. Yet, since she arrived at MSU, she has criss-crossed the world researching the properties of gels at labs in Harvard and Sweden, she has performed in Viet Nam and volunteered in Africa. She is also one of just a few undergraduates who has published papers in a prestigious research journal, and is poised for a career in a groundbreaking new field of materials science.

"My undergraduate research experiences at MSU, Harvard, and Chalmers University of Technology (in Sweden) have been as much or more than I could have imagined," Fabich said.

Sarah Codd, MSU professor of mechanical engineering who is one of Fabich's research mentors, says that Fabich's level of work is mature beyond her years.

"(She) consistently rises to requests above and beyond what many graduate level students do with regard to participation in lab activities and lab visitors," Codd said. "She has people skills that are quite frankly better than I have seen in anyone."

However, Fabich said when she came to MSU just five years ago she had only a vague idea of what an engineer might do, much less a research scientist.

Fabich said her decision to study engineering was rooted in the advice of a high school guidance counselor. While Fabich grew up hunting, fishing and riding, she was also a pianist who originally planned a career in music. A Park High counselor knew of her skills in math and science and suggested she add engineering to the mix. Fabich thought that an engineering major might be more practical than music, so she looked for a college where she could study both. She considered Penn State and Washington University in St. Louis.

"But, it was financially better at MSU, and I also LOVE the mountains," Fabich said. "I love to ski and hike and backpack -- anything outside. So, I was happy to stay here for my undergrad."

Fabich said she only had a vague idea what engineers did when she began her major. She asked an instructor of one of her freshman engineering courses if he might know of available summer jobs in her field. He referred her to Joe Seymour, a professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at MSU, who, with Codd, co-directs the MSU Magnetic Resonance Lab. Seymour had been looking for a student who might be interested in using magnetic resonance microscopy to research alginate gels, or gels that are produced from brown algae, and turned over the project to Fabich.

Seymour explains that alginates are used in biomedical applications such as tissue engineering (the laboratory growth of human tissue) as well as other areas, such as food additives.

Fabich's first step was getting the necessary chemicals to form a gel.

"It (was) frustrating, because while all the chemicals were here, no one in this lab had studied gels and no one could really tell me how to make them," Fabich said. Yet, Fabich said from the beginning she liked the collaborative nature of research.

"I liked that I could be working on my own project but be working alongside others."

While the process "took really a long time... When I finally got it to work, I felt so proud. That's when I knew I wanted to do research for my career."

Seymour said that Fabich "has really been the key to getting research on gels going in our lab. She applies the same determination to research that she does to summiting peaks."

Despite a demanding academic and research schedule, Fabich did find time to summit peaks during her university years. She said a core group of about 15-20 classmates in chemical engineering met to study and play in the surrounding mountains. In the beginning they were often led by Fabich, who knew the lay of the land -- as they skied, camped and hiked. "It's nice to be surrounded by people like that," she said. "There are some very balanced people here."

She played in the MSU Symphony for three years, traveling with that group to its tour of Southeast Asia where they became the first collegiate group to play in Viet Nam. She also played keyboard in a blues rock band, the Barrelhouse Five. An avid skier, both cross country and downhill, she said she frequently puts in a half day on the ski hill before coming to spend hours researching.

"It's nice, because research can be flexible," she said."I could work into the night."

She is also motivated to spread her passion for science to others. She was a mentor for the MSU Minority Apprentice Program, she has traveled to Ronan to attract Native students to study science, and she has been a mentor with the MSU Expanding Your Horizons program promoting science and math in middle school girls.

She said she loves developing science activities that hook young students. "And I just love when (kids) get excited about science."

Fabich also was involved in the MSU chapter of Engineers Without Borders and traveled to Kenya for a month to volunteer on an engineering project in the group's ongoing efforts to bring clean drinking water to rural school districts.

Seymour's National Science Foundation Career Award funded Fabich's trip to Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, where she learned techniques important to studying gels using magnetic resonance technology.

And, this past summer she worked with David Weitz, one of the world's most prominent physicists, at the Weitz Lab at Harvard University, studying one of the polymers that provide strength and shape to cells. Her work was funded by the Research for Undergraduates program in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Fabich still exercises her creative bent. Two years ago she won a prize at an international professional conference for the most creative MRI images of fruit that she arranged into a fruit basket. This year her paper on the dynamics of alginate gelation was published in the journal Magnetic Resonance in Chemistry. Codd estimates that probably less than one percent of undergraduates publish papers in research journals before they graduate.

"Combining (the publication and people skills) with her intelligence, her innate curiosity and her ability to make detailed and thoughtful observations, there is no doubt she is going to make a significant impact as a research scientist," Codd said.

Fabich, who is now applying to graduate school at Harvard, as well as other universities around the world, is not yet sure where her career will go after graduate school, "possibly industrial research, possibly academia. But, I know I want to stay in research. (It) is one of my passions, and I feel that is how I can contribute the most."

Sarah Codd (406) 994-1944, scodd@coe.montana.edu