Montana State University

MSU research propels Livingston-area native to cutting-edge academic career

September 14, 2015 -- Sepp Jannotta, MSU News Service

Hilary Fabich returned to Montana State University for a week to talk about the Gate Cambridge Scholarship that has her researching magnetic resonance imaging while working on her doctorate in chemical engineering at the University of Cambridge in England. MSU Photo by Sepp Jannotta.

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
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BOZEMAN – With a grateful nod to the ongoing role of her mentors at Montana State University, Hilary Fabich readily acknowledges the storybook ride that has propelled a promising research career beyond her MSU graduation and into hallowed halls of the University of Cambridge.

Fabich, who grew up Montana’s Paradise Valley and graduated from MSU in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, earned the university’s first Gates Cambridge Scholarship, which has paid for her to pursue her doctorate at Cambridge’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, researching cutting-edge approaches to magnetic resonance imaging in one of the world’s top MRI research centers. Fabich said her experience in England has been about the state-of-the-art research and networking, while it is also imbued with the kind of Old World tradition found in the Harry Potter books.

“It has been an incredible experience, both the opportunities that the Gates Cambridge Scholarship can offer, and the experience of being immersed in the traditional culture that is part of the University of Cambridge,” said Fabich, who has continued collaborating with Sarah Codd and Joseph Seymour, professors of mechanical and chemical engineering, respectively, and her mentors in MSU’s Magnetic Resonance Lab. “Best of all, through my pursuit of research during visits in New Zealand and in Bozeman, I have been able to continue working with the incredible people at MSU who really launched me on this journey in the first place.”

Fabich, who was back in Bozeman this week to visit with students in MSU’s Honors College, told a gathering of students that it’s okay to defy long odds to reach for lofty goals. Because it fit with her passion for researching magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, Fabich took a shot at a prestigious Gates Cambridge Scholarship, even though she was aware only 5 percent of applicants get selected.

“It is certainly worth applying if it fits with your goals, because if you get a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, you will be treated to a lot of perks that aren’t often part of a scholarship package,” Fabich said. 

Fabich, who was one of 40 Americans and 50 non-U.S. scholars chosen in 2012 to receive the scholarship funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said she immediately felt like she was part of something out of the ordinary. There was an orientation retreat in the English countryside. There were the friendly greetings and offers of assistance from fellow Gates Cambridge scholars she’d met in the neighborhood. More often than not, Fabich said, those kindred spirits have become close friends.

On top of offering one of the few opportunities for an American to be funded to study in England, Gates Cambridge provides a study space reserved for scholarship recipients.

“It’s something that I could not have predicted,” Fabich said of how welcome and fortunate she has felt since arriving late in the summer of 2012. “It’s really been a magical ride.”     

Fabich, the daughter of a teacher and a state game warden, said she has had a chance to continue researching in the MRI field, investigating compressed sensing techniques for MRI.  

Fabich, who was lead author and coauthor on two scientific papers during her time at MSU, was the lead author on a paper published by the “Journal of Magnetic Resonance,” detailing some of her work at Cambridge. The paper explains the MRI pulse sequence technique she is now using for scanning a fluidized bed. She is now working to show that she can take accurate measurements of solid particles in bubbling fluidized bed reactors, which are used in variety of chemical engineering processes, including the refining of crude oil and the production of pharmaceutical compounds.

Fabich was given the Sir Paul Callaghan Young Investigator Award in recognition of an outstanding presentation of her work during the International Conference of Magnetic Resonance Microscopy held in Germany last month.

Specifically, she has been researching how to use MRI to study fluidized bed reactors, which are fundamentally solid particles with air bubbles flowing through them. She has been able to acquire images of bubble formation in a fluidized bed, something that has not been done before. This type of data can help to refine computer simulations of these systems. Fabich said she hopes the research might also lead to practical ways for chemical engineers to achieve MRI scans of other solids, such as food powders, plant seeds or rock cores which could allow non-invasive access to opaque samples that are inherently difficult to study.

“If we can use our MRI data to more accurately model fluidized bed reactors, we will be able to increase the reactor efficiency for a variety of industries,” said Fabich, who has continued to work with her former Cambridge advisor Daniel Holland, now a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.  

As it turns out, another MSU graduate and veteran of the Magnetic Resonance Lab, Tim Brox, has developed a new piece of hardware that can be used with an magnetic resonance scanner and can provide valuable information about the systems Fabich is studying. Brox’s hardware offers a significant advance because it can also measure torque. Brox, who is pursuing his doctorate at Victoria University in New Zealand, has also returned to MSU to continue his collaborations with Codd, Seymour and Jennifer Brown, an assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering and a principal investigator in the Magnetic Resonance Lab . 

“It’s been really satisfying to continue to work with Tim, another MSU grad, who is doing really incredible work in the MRI field,” said Fabich, who, as a result of her collaboration with Brox, was able to acquire data on granular materials that has not been shown experimentally before.

Codd pointed to both Fabich and Brox as examples of MSU graduates pushing the envelope. As a case in point, the award Fabich received at the International Conference of Magnetic Resonance Microscopy typically goes to people “who have gone on to be very successful researchers in the field,” Codd said.

“We have maintained a very close relationship with Hilary as she has indeed continued working in the same field she first got involved with in our lab as an undergraduate,” Codd added. “It was wonderful to have Hilary and Tim Brox back this summer working together using the unique experimental (technology) we have here in the College of Engineering.”

Contact: Sepp Jannotta, (406) 994-7371, seppjannotta@montana.edu.