Montana State University

Three MSU students receive prestigious Goldwater Scholarships

March 21, 2014 -- MSU News Service

Montana State University students Connor Murnion from Helena, Katherine Kent from Billings, and McLain Leonard from Post Falls, Idaho, from left, have each received Goldwater Scholarships, the nation's premier scholarship for undergraduates studying math, natural sciences and engineering. MSU has now produced 61 Goldwater scholars, keeping the university one of the nation's top institutions for numbers of recipients. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571

Three Montana State University students learned this week that they have received the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship, the nation’s premier scholarship for undergraduates studying math, natural sciences and engineering.

Katherine Kent from Billings, McLain Leonard from Post Falls, Idaho, and Connor Murnion from Helena each received the scholarship, which gives each student up to $7,500 a year for tuition, fees, books, and room and board.

MSU has now produced 61 Goldwater scholars, keeping the university one of the nation's top institutions for numbers of recipients.

“This is a wonderful recognition, not only of our students, but of the tremendous faculty mentorship that is available to our students at our university,” said Ilse-Mari Lee, dean of the MSU Honors College and administrator of the Goldwater Scholarship program at MSU.

All three recipients are juniors and MSU Honors College students who conduct research, Lee said. Kent is majoring in both biological engineering and chemical engineering, Leonard is majoring in chemical engineering, and Murnion is majoring in cell biology and neuroscience.

In addition, Cassia Wagner, a sophomore from Kalispell, received an honorable mention. Wagner is majoring in chemistry.

Universities are only allowed to nominate four students per year, so the fact that all four nominees from MSU received recognition is a tremendous achievement, Lee said.

Kent transferred to MSU as a sophomore after beginning her undergraduate career at Washington State University, a move she said has enabled her to work toward a dual major. The move to MSU has also given her a much more active, hands-on role as a researcher, Kent said.

“The faculty here wants you to get your hands into (research) and they want to get you out on your own conducting your own experiments. That has really stood out to me,” said Kent, who has been investigating the interactions between nanoparticles and biopolymers in MSU’s Magnetic Resonance Lab. “My mentors have been amazingly supportive. They are always there to help and make sure you are on the right track, but they want me to have my own challenges and learn to solve problems on my own.”

Kent has been supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health’s Idea Network for Biomedical Research Excellence, via MSU’s Undergraduate Scholars Program, as well as through a scholarship from BP America and a College of Engineering EMPower (Engineering Minority Program) scholarship.

Kent said working with Jennifer Brown, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering, has enabled her to conduct fundamental scientific research.

“It’s been really exciting,” Kent said. 

Murnion learned he had won the Goldwater after returning from a friend’s birthday party Wednesday evening and opening an email from Lee. Since his roommates were sleeping, he couldn’t tell them his news, but said, “I did a little dance.”

Murnion, who said he came to MSU because of the opportunity to conduct research, has been working in professor Frances Lefcort’s laboratory since the spring of his freshman year. His research, which he will present at MSU’s Student Research Celebration on April 15, focuses on a rare condition called FD, or Familial Dysautonomia. Lefcort is a neuroscientist, head of the Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience and a Provost’s Distinguished Lecturer. Murnion’s other mentors are Martha Chaverra, a research associate in Lefcort’s laboratory, and Michael Babcock, a professor in the Department of Psychology, where Murnion is earning a minor in psychology.

After graduating from MSU, Murnion wants to travel, then attend graduate school to research education so he can more effectively teach young children. Eventually, he wants to affect public school policies, establish his own school or work in a private school that aligns with his educational beliefs. The youngest of three sons, Murnion said education is part of his family. His mother, Pamela Murnion, is an elementary school teacher in Helena. His oldest brother hopes to become a law professor. His other brother, who is earning a master’s degree in Japanese literature, also enjoys teaching.

In his spare time, Murnion said he enjoys back packing, rock climbing and playing music. He especially likes writing and reading and hopes to publish a novel he is writing about a young woman who goes on a vision quest after the apocalypse occurs. The project is the fulfillment of a New Year’s resolution where Murnion vowed to write the first draft of a novel.

For Leonard, as a student researcher who has been supported by the Undergraduate Scholars Program and the Montana Space Grant Consortium, MSU has also opened the door to hands-on laboratory experiences. Leonard said he has been fortunate to spend a lot of time learning the ins and outs of laboratory work with a pair of faculty mentors, Paul Gannon and Roberta Amendola, in the Chemical and Biological Engineering Department’s High Temperature Materials Laboratory.

“They have always encouraged me to be pretty independent,” said Leonard, who is a first generation college student. “As long as I delivered results, they gave me pretty free rein to grow and learn. They’ve really encouraged me to build up my body of research, as well as my ability to use analytical equipment.” 

As a sophomore, Leonard worked with Gannon, Amendola and a research group in Taiwan to investigate ways to use metallic thin-film coatings to mitigate the corrosion of stainless steel interconnect components, which are sandwiched between the individual cells in solid oxide fuel cells. Because of high temperatures and environments rich in both hydrogen and oxygen, fuel cell interconnect materials are subject to extreme corrosion. Now with support from the Montana Space Grant Consortium, Leonard is conducting experiments on thin-film coatings, which combine metallic and ceramic properties and might be able to prolong the lifespan of the nickel superalloy components found inside jet engines.

“Only a couple of research groups in the world do this kind of work, so I feel pretty lucky that I can be involved in the kind of research that is providing useful data to the scientific community,” Leonard said. “It’s a great opportunity.”   

Contact: Ilse-Mari Lee, dean, MSU Honors College, (406) 994-4110 or