Montana State University

MSU graduate earns prestigious NSF fellowship to further his research in cell division

September 26, 2016 -- Denise Hoepfner, MSU News Service

Ben LaFrance, a 2014 graduate of MSU's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, has received an NSF fellowship to continue his research in cell division. Photo courtesy Kay LaFrance.

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
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BOZEMAN – Ben LaFrance, a 2014 graduate of MSU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in the College of Letters and Science, was awarded a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Program Fellowship that will provide him with funding to continue his research in cell division.

LaFrance, a Bozeman native, said he is “humbled and ecstatic” to be chosen as one of just 2,000 students to receive the fellowship out of 17,000 applicants, which will give him up to $34,000 a year for three years to pursue his research.

“Over the next few years, this funding will propel my graduate research regarding cell division, as well as provide support for ideas I have about community outreach projects,” he said.

LaFrance said he also intends to use some of the funds to connect with world-class researchers by traveling to conferences around the globe in order to benefit his research.

LaFrance currently conducts his research at the University of California, Berkeley, in the lab of Eva Nogales, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and professor of biochemistry, biophysics and structural biology.

At Berkeley, LaFrance uses cryo-electron microscopy to study proteins involved with cell division. These enormous cryogenic microscopes allow scientists to understand the architecture and function of proteins and, therefore, provide insight into how cells divide and pass on genetic material.

“In a human lifetime, cells divide about 1.5 quadrillion times,” LaFrance said. “If one single error occurs during that time, the cell can die or become cancerous. This research is important in furthering our understanding of the fundamental processes that drive cell division and enlightening us toward the prevention of cell death and cancer.”

During high school and throughout his undergraduate years at MSU, LaFrance worked in the lab of former MSU professor Trevor Douglas in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Specifically, LaFrance researched virus-like particles — hollow protein shells that can be used as building blocks to encapsulate desired materials. During his time in the Douglas Lab, LaFrance co-authored several publications regarding MRI contrast agents, nanoreactors and other bio-inspired materials built from these virus-like particles.

Douglas said he is “pleased and proud, but not surprised,” that LaFrance was awarded the grant.

“Ben is a rare student with intense curiosity and willingness to learn,” said Douglas by email from the University of Indiana, where he now teaches. “At MSU he was a hugely important member of my lab and was a contributing author on six scientific papers, which is amazing. I am glad that I had the chance to work with him and I want to stress the importance of MSU creating opportunities for undergraduates to work with research faculty whenever possible.”

LaFrance, an Honors College graduate, said MSU’s land-grant mission of focusing on the practical aspects of research are “unparalleled.” He credits MSU’s flexibility in allowing him to tailor some of his classes to topics that piqued his interest, rather than forcing him to follow a rigid set schedule, with setting him up for post-graduate success.

“I can’t think of a better preparation for graduate school, and I give MSU a good deal of the credit for the accomplishments that garnered the NSF fellowship,” LaFrance said.

Perhaps most important, he said, is the excellent support network comprised of faculty and staff throughout campus, which makes MSU an “incubator for student success.”

LaFrance’s future plans include a hoped-for return to Montana to continue his research. He said ideal scenarios could include a position at Rocky Mountain National Lab in Hamilton, conducting research with a start-up company, or a teaching position at MSU.

“I love science but I also haven’t ruled out a career as a brewmaster or bike mechanic, so it will be exciting to see what the future holds,” he said.

Denise Hoepfner, denise.hoepfner@montana.edu or (406) 994-4542

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