Montana State University

Six MSU-affiliated students receive NSF Graduate Research Fellowships

August 22, 2014 -- MSU News Service

Six students affiliated with MSU have received 2014 NSF Graduate Research Fellowships. The Montana natives originally lived in Floweree, Helena and Whitefish.

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BOZEMAN – Six graduate students affiliated with Montana State University have received National Science Foundation fellowships that will allow them to research everything from HIV to concrete.

Each worth at least $32,000 a year for three years, the 2014 NSF Graduate Research Fellowships went to Tiffany Hensley-McBain of Whitefish, Nate Looker of Des Moines, Iowa; Justin Martin of Arcata, Calif.; Julie Muretta of Floweree, Flynn Murray of Moorhead, Minn., and Kelly Spendlove of Helena.

Murray, one of two Fellows in MSU’s College of Engineering, said her fellowship came as a complete shock, but it was a welcome surprise as she pursues her doctorate in civil engineering despite a spinal cord injury. Murray was in a car accident five years ago that left her an “incomplete quadriplegic.”

“I kind of just thought the fellowship was a good way to get experience applying for things like that,” Murray said. “I didn’t really think I would get it at all.”

Muretta, the other recipient in engineering, said, “For me, this fellowship represents the end of a lot of years of working two or sometimes even three jobs to put myself through school and raise my children alone.

“It also means a chance to pursue engaging research of my choosing,” she said. “I absolutely love coming in to the lab every day, and I love learning. The process of discovery, even if it is discovering what someone else has done, and then maybe applying it in a new and novel way, is so exciting.”

Looker and Martin both conduct research in Jia Hu’s laboratory in MSU’s Department of Ecology. A plant ecophysiologist who examines how plants respond to the environment, Hu said she was stunned when she learned that both students, although deserving, had received the prestigious fellowship.

“I was hoping at least one of them would get it, and I felt that both were highly qualified. They both submitted their application to the same NSF division, so I didn’t think there was a chance that both of them would receive it,” she said. “Needless to say, I was really shocked that they both got it, but at the same time, not surprised.”

Hu added that, “I’m honored to be mentoring these two great students, and I hope we put forth some great ideas in the following years.”

The NSF, since 1952, has awarded Graduate Research Fellowships to students early in their graduate careers. The recipients are chosen according to their potential for making significant achievements in science and engineering.

Here is more information about the 2014 recipients with ties to MSU:

Tiffany Hensley-McBain graduated from MSU in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in cell biology and neuroscience. She then worked through June 2013 as a research technician in the HIV Vaccine Trials Network in Seattle. She is now pursuing her doctorate at the University of Washington, where she is studying the immune response to acute HIV infection and how HIV disrupts the gastrointestinal tract in infected individuals. After graduate school, she plans to pursue a teaching career and increase access for students in rural Montana schools to scientific research and career exploration.

“Receiving my own funding for my graduate education allowed me to select a thesis lab based on my passion for the research rather than the lab’s ability to support me financially,” Hensley-McBain said. “This opened up many opportunities and ultimately contributed to my ability to join a newer and smaller lab with research goals that perfectly align with my interests.”

Nate Looker graduated from Iowa State University in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in agronomy and global resource systems. He will use the first year of his NSF fellowship to complete his master’s degree in biological science at MSU. He will use the final two years to begin work on a doctorate at a university yet to be determined. His master’s degree thesis addresses how trees in the subalpine forest adjust to variations in water availability and the implications for drought vulnerability. His long-term goal is to study ecosystems with the people and organizations that manage them, either in academia or an international research institute.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity to use this fellowship to design an interdisciplinary research project incorporating both ecology and hydrology,” Looker said. “For my doctoral research, I hope to apply the methods of ecohydrology to the development of modeling tools to support environmental decision-making in the face of climatic and/or sociopolitical uncertainty.”

Justin Martin earned his bachelor’s degree in ecology at Humboldt State University. Now pursuing his doctorate at MSU, he is researching tree growth responses to climate variation. After earning his doctorate, he would like to continue working in ecological research as a career.

“The fellowship is a welcomed recognition of years of hard work, and I feel very fortunate to be able to focus entirely on my research,” Martin said.

Julie Muretta received her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from MSU, and she will use her NSF fellowship to earn an advanced degree at MSU. Her research will focus on engineering composite materials that mimic natural structures such as bone and teeth. Noting that such materials get their mechanical properties in part from interactions between multiple phases in the materials, she said understanding the phases is paramount for developing multi-functional engineering materials.

“In my career, I hope to expand the field of composite materials to mean multi-functional,” Muretta said. “It would be so huge to contribute to the development of self-healing materials or integral health-monitoring systems.”

Flynn Murray graduated from MSU in December 2013, with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. She is now pursuing her doctorate in the same department. She will use her fellowship to research concrete-filled tubes and make a guide for people who might design such tubes. Murray is a structural engineer with plans of becoming a professor.

Kelly Spendlove earned his bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 2012 and his master’s degree in mathematics in 2013, both from MSU. He is now in his second year in the mathematics Ph.D. program at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. He studies the nonlinear phenomena that drive complex systems as diverse as financial markets, ecosystems or biological processes.

“The fellowship itself provides an extended period with which I may focus on research,” Spendlove said. “The fellowship also includes opportunities for international research.”

Spendlove spent last summer in Japan as a fellow in another NSF program that allowed him to conduct research at Kyoto University. He hopes to use the international opportunities provided by his new fellowship to revisit his collaborators in Japan.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or