Montana State University

Winner of new MSU award found her path early, in research lab

February 17, 2014 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

Joan Broderick, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, won the first Woman in Science Distinguished Professor Award at Montana State University. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham).    High-Res Available

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BOZEMAN -- Joan Broderick worked in her first laboratory when she was a college freshman, emptying out vials of toxic liquids and radioactive materials.

“I did terrible things nobody else wanted to do,” says Broderick, who not only survived but recently won a new Montana State University award that honors women in science.

She was so happy working in a research lab at age 19 that she would have worked there for free, Broderick said. In fact, she volunteered to do just that when the funding for her “fairly undesirable position” ran out, but her supervisor refused her offer. Broderick then found a job in another lab, then another and another. By the time she earned her bachelor’s degree from Washington State University, she had worked in four research labs, published three papers, knew she loved chemistry, and realized she wanted a career in research.

Now a professor in MSU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and the first winner of MSU’s Woman in Science Distinguished Professor Award, Broderick has her own laboratory where she supervises four graduate students, four undergraduates, one senior scientist and one technician working to understand how certain types of metals, particularly iron, function in biology. She has an international reputation for her research and has published 71 peer-reviewed papers. She is recognized as a committed teacher and mentor.

“Joan is a truly outstanding faculty member who has really set the bar high as the inaugural recipient of this distinguished professor award,” said department head Mary Cloninger, who nominated Broderick for the award.

“She has earned international recognition for using many complementary experimental approaches to thoughtfully attack complex problems in metallobiochemistry,” Cloninger said. “She is an outstanding teacher at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and she goes out of her way to mentor younger scientists and colleagues. She just exemplifies what we all aspire to do in teaching, mentoring, and advancing knowledge. She richly deserves this award, and I feel very fortunate to have her as a colleague.”

Nancy Seleski, an MSU alumna who is the director of supply chain and quality for 3M’s Industrial Business, established the award through the MSU Alumni Foundation to honor outstanding faculty women in the sciences who champion equity and diversity and have excelled in research accomplishments, teaching and mentorship, as well as made contributions to Montana and/or MSU. The recipient receives $4,000 a year for two years.

She established the award because even after working with young women and men from all walks of life for 27 years, she still feels like women are pioneering in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math, Seleski said. Believing that diversity is where the power is, she promotes diversity in the 3M workplace and mentors women seeking to advance their STEM careers. She encourages the same at MSU.

“Montana State is in my heart, and women in STEM are in my heart, and faculty are the heartbeat of what makes a university great,” Seleski said.

Still appreciative of her MSU mentors – especially her adviser Daniel Shaffer and the late Lloyd Berg – Seleski said her father, Lee Smith of Columbia Falls, graduated from MSU in 1956 with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. Seleski earned her degree in the same field in 1986.  She then joined 3M, where she has worked in a variety of positions, ranging from chemical engineering to leadership. She is now at the point in her career and life where she wants to give back to MSU.

“I’m excited about it. It’s absolutely a passion of mine,” Seleski said.

Seleski’s award builds on efforts begun in 2012 to help broaden the participation of MSU women faculty members in the STEM fields, as well as the SBS fields of social and behavioral sciences. Those are two areas where MSU women are outnumbered by men. The $3.4 million, five-year ADVANCE Institutional Transformation Grant from the National Science Foundation aimed to increase participation by improving the work environment for the entire campus.

Cloninger praised the award Seleski established, saying, “To me, this award represents MSU's commitment to fostering academic excellence and to encouraging students and faculty of all perspectives, genders, etc. so that we can all become important contributors to the advancement and distribution of knowledge. I'm very proud to have my colleague receive this award because of the inclusiveness and commitment to excellence that it signifies. Joan is achieving the goals and ideals that we all strive toward, and I can't think of anyone who is more deserving of this recognition from MSU.”

Receiving the award was a huge honor, Broderick said.

“To be recognized at the university level for what you have done and for promoting younger women and people of both sexes … means a lot to me,” she said.

Broderick said she has been interested in science since she was in middle school. She originally intended to pursue some area of science in college, perhaps forestry, range management or veterinary school, but she chose biology and chemistry instead. She eventually narrowed it down to chemistry.

“Although I loved biology, I found chemistry more satisfying,” Broderick said. “It went deeper into the questions of why things are the way they are, how they are and how nature really works.”

One reason she prefers chemistry research over other intellectual pursuits in the humanities is the fact that it involves facts and discovery, Broderick said.

“There are ideas that can be tested and proven right or wrong,” she said.

“I enjoy the challenge of learning new information, of learning to understand things in a way that they haven’t been understood previously to get new facts,” she added. “I like the discovery aspect of it. It has always captivated me to find new information.”

She and her lab are looking for new information about iron, which is abundant on Earth and everyday life, but also in biology, Broderick said. Hemoglobin is one example of such iron, but she focuses on other kinds of iron that initiate specific biological reactions.

“The reactions are of interest because they involve unpaired electrons,” Broderick said. “Most electrons are paired up. When pulled apart, those single electrons become very reactive.”

Those reactions are widespread, but they are not very well understood, Broderick said. As a result, her lab is trying to understand those reactions and studies the enzymes that speed them up. Her work could have wide applications in biomedicine and green energy.

What the members of her lab do to reach those goals varies according to their interests, Broderick said. Some enjoy studying molecular biology and cloning genes, for example. Several are currently interested in mass spectrometry as a research tool.

The fact that she is a woman may encourage some undergraduate women to go into science, Broderick said.

She added, however, that, “I absolutely encourage women and anyone to get involved in science, especially at the undergraduate level. For me, it completely transformed my life. You don’t know you will love it unless you do this.

“Try it out and see if you like it,” Broderick said. “See what it really means to be a scientist and to discover things. It’s more than learning techniques and facts. It’s really a profession, a field that’s about discovery and about learning new information.

“And,” she said, “it’s fun.” 

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or