Montana State University

Rocket science leads to major fellowship for MSU grad student

April 24, 2013 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


MSU graduate student Vanessa Murray recently won a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship, which gives her a $30,000 stipend for each of three years, up to $1,000 a year for medical insurance and pays her MSU tuition for three years. (MSU photo by Sepp Jannotta).    High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
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BOZEMAN - A Montana State University graduate student who studies the chemical reactions that occur when rockets return to Earth has won a major award from the U.S. Department of Defense.

Vanessa Murray from Craig, Colo., has received a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship, which gives her a $30,000 stipend for each of three years, up to $1,000 a year for medical insurance and pays her MSU tuition for three years.An MSU faculty member who helped select previous winners said the fellowship is highly competitive, going to only five or six applicants out of 100.

"It's kind of crazy. I didn't think I stood a chance to get it at all," said Murray, a doctoral student in physical chemistry. "It was a nice surprise in my email."

Murray said she was so excited by the news that she screamed and pounded on the office door of her adviser Tim Minton, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. He opened the door, thinking there was an emergency. If nothing else, it sounded like she might have seen a mouse in the converted mobile home that serves as an office building for Minton, Murray and editorial associate Niki Wolf.

"But a breathless Vanessa stood there saying she had good news, and I was extremely happy to learn that she had received the NDSEG Fellowship. It was a proud moment for both of us," Minton said.

"I think Vanessa's passion for research and her intellectual independence came through in her application," he added. "Her unique training in engineering and science and the fact that her research is of keen interest to the Air Force undoubtedly stood out in the selection process, too."

Abbie Richards, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, said, "She has a stellar GPA. She's doing great research. She was obviously very competitive."

Richards, who has known Murray since 2007, served on a previous panel that selected NDSEG fellows in the area of chemical engineering.NDSEG Fellowships go to U.S. citizens who intend to pursue a doctoral degree in one of 15 disciplines.Richards said she still remembers thinking, "Gosh, it seems impossible to get one of these ... You are splitting hairs between really, really talented people.

"It's a very competitive panel with a lower success rate than a lot of other fellowships," Richards said. "Students who are applying for this are from the typical big-name schools, like MIT. To have someone from Montana State win one of these really speaks to the quality of students here."

Minton said the fellowship provides full support for Murray's graduate research assistantship, allowing her to stay focused on her chosen area of research.

"The accomplishments that will come from her focused research efforts and the recognition of this highly competitive fellowship will create opportunities for Vanessa and position her well for an independent career as a scientist," he added.

No one has ever tried the kind of experiment before that Murray is conducting, Minton said. It requires her to heat a piece of carbon to more than 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. By the time it reaches that temperature, the carbon has displayed a range of colors starting with dull red and ending with a white so brilliant that Murray has to wear welding goggles to protect her eyes. Murray then shoots a beam of oxygen atoms at the hot, glowing surface and monitors the products that come off of it.

The goal is to understand the chemical reactions that occur at the surface of a spacecraft when it re-enters the Earth's atmosphere, Minton said.

Murray said carbon-based materials are often used on the leading edges of rockets. While in space, the materials are bombarded with particles that cause the material to erode. When the rocket returns to Earth, the materials have to endure extreme heat. At some point, the materials may fall away, carrying heat away from the rocket.

Murray said her fellowship will allow her to start paying off student loans. She graduated from MSU in 2011 with a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering, then started a master's degree program in chemical engineering. She later switched to a Ph.D. program in physical chemistry and expects to complete her doctorate in three more years.

As welcome as the money is, Murray said she doesn't require a lot to be happy. Growing up, she lived in a small town with a single parent.

"My family never had a ton of expendable cash," she said. "We weren't hard off necessarily, but we never lived a lavish lifestyle."

The fellowship is more important to her because of what it signifies, Murray said.

"Somebody out there thinks you are worth this," she said.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu