Montana State University

Recent MSU graduate wins prestigious Gates Cambridge Scholarship

February 10, 2012 -- By Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service


Hilary Fabich of Livingston is one of 40 Americans who have received a 2012 Gates Cambridge scholarship for graduate study at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. Fabich, who recently graduated from MSU with a degree in chemical engineering, will earn a doctorate while researching advanced technologies of magnetic resonance imaging. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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Hilary Fabich, who graduated in December from Montana State University with a degree in chemical engineering, has won a Gates Cambridge Scholarship that will fund graduate work at the University of Cambridge in England.

Fabich is one of 40 Americans, and 50 non-U.S. scholars, to receive the prestigious scholarship funded by the Gates Foundation. Fabich plans to use her Gates Cambridge scholarship to research compressed sensing techniques for magnetic resonance imaging while she obtains a doctorate at Cambridge.

"I would not have received this scholarship without the support of my mentors and the resources available at MSU," said Fabich, who grew up near Livingston with a passion for music and had only the vaguest idea of what engineers did before enrolling at MSU.

"I am excited to be attending Cambridge, but I'm even more excited that this award is something concrete to show what an incredible place MSU is."

Fabich is the first MSU student or graduate to receive the scholarship, which was instituted in 2000 by Bill and Melinda Gates. The honor is similar to the Rhodes Scholarship; however, recipients attend Cambridge rather than Oxford, according to Ilse-Mari Lee, director of the MSU University Honors Program.

"Not only is Hilary most deserving of this prestigious award, but it also means that we, as a university, have provided a motivated student with the education and opportunities she needed to successfully compete in an international arena," Lee said. "Ultimately, her gifts will be in service of all. As Montana's land-grant university, MSU will have a global impact, through the work of Hilary Fabich, and her mentors, professors Sarah Codd and Joe Seymour."

Fabich said Lee, Codd and Seymour all provided "pivotal moments" for her personally as well as for her academic career.

Fabich, who was a Presidential Scholar at MSU, met Lee while a freshman living at the University Honors residence hall. Even though she was enrolled in engineering, Fabich is a pianist who had considered a music major. Lee, who is also a musician, encouraged Fabich to become involved with the MSU Symphony. Fabich played with the orchestra for three years, traveling to Asia on the group's historic Southeast Asian tour.

The daughter of a teacher and a state game warden, Fabich had worked in Yellowstone National Park in the summer prior to attending MSU. She looked for an internship in the chemical engineering field after her freshmen year to help her understand more about her chosen profession. She was recommended to Seymour, professor of chemical and biological engineering at MSU. Seymour and Codd, professor of mechanical engineering, co-direct 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. Fabich's skills were so strong that eventually Seymour turned over the project to Fabich.

"(Fabich's) ability to conduct original research is in the top 1 percent of students I have met worldwide," Seymour said. "Hilary has a calm and reasoned passion for understanding the physical world around us. This passion translates into an ability to penetrate complexities and challenges in research through focused analysis of prior work and a willingness to jump in and design experiments to see if they work."

Fabich said Seymour and Codd encouraged her to attend the International Conference on Magnetic Resonance Microscopy after her sophomore year where her presentation of fruit MRIs, developed for an outreach activity with children, won an image "beauty award."

"She made such a strong impression on international participants at the ICMRM, that she was invited to consider graduate study at Cambridge University, U.K.," Codd said, adding that Fabich's people skills are among the best she has encountered.

While at MSU, Fabich also presented her research at the American Institute of Chemical Engineering Conference in Nashville, Tenn., and at the National Conference for Undergraduate Research in Missoula. In addition, she has published papers in prestigious research journals and engaged in cutting edge research.

"There is no doubt she is going to make a significant impact as a research scientist," Codd said.

Fabich has volunteered in Africa with the MSU chapter of Engineers Without Borders and traveled to Ronan with this group to engage Native American elementary school students in science activities. She worked with the Minority Apprenticeship Program to attract Native high school students to study science through an outreach program she developed in the magnetic resonance lab. And, she mentored girls in middle school interested in math and science through the MSU Expanding Your Horizons program.

Fabich also is an avid skier and outdoorswoman, often putting in a couple of runs at Bridger Bowl before coming to work a full day in her lab. She also played keyboard in a blues rock band, the Barrelhouse Five.

While she will be unable to ski before class at Cambridge, she will have an opportunity to work with some of the world's top magnetic resonance imaging technology scientists. For that reason, she had already applied to and had been accepted to the prestigious university, but financing her program there would have been impossible without the Gates Cambridge Scholarship, she said.

While at Cambridge, Fabich will research compressed sensing techniques to reduce the time necessary for magnetic resonance images. She said the technology has implications for both medical and commercial uses.

Fabich leaves for Sweden in mid-February where she will spend six months conducting research at Chalmers University in Gothenburg prior to beginning at Cambridge in October. Last summer, she worked with David Weitz, one of the world's most prominent physicists, at the Weitz Lab at Harvard University. It was there that Fabich said she gained the confidence to apply for the Gates Cambridge Scholarship.

"Working at Harvard I learned that I had been well prepared for any research environment," Fabich said. In fact, she said all of her experiences helped her realize how lucky she was to have spent her undergraduate years at a place where students had tremendous support from their mentors and opportunities to engage in a wealth of activities ranging from research to the outdoors.

She said those are among the reasons that her eventual plans call for returning to Montana as an academic researcher.

In fact, one of the interviewers on the Gates Cambridge panel of judges, who was from the U.K., was puzzled that one of Fabich's recommendations noted that she was a "true Montanan."

"He wanted to know if being a true Montanan was a good or bad thing," said Fabich, who took a day off to celebrate the award by going ice fishing with her father. "I told him that it was definitely a compliment."

Ilse-Mari Lee (406) 994-4689, ilselee@montana.edu