Montana State University

MSU’s Josh Carter wins Rhodes Scholarship

November 21, 2016 -- by Carol Schmidt, MSU News

Josh Carter, a senior who will receive twin degrees in both mechanical engineering and microbiology and hails from Watertown, South Dakota, has won a 2017 Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University. Carter is interested in developing smart prosthetics, and to do so, has completed two distinct degrees in mechanical Engineering and in microbiology. Carter is the only student in the history of Montana State University who has done so. He is a Goldwater Scholar and has four publications to his name, including one in Science. He has become a leading expert in CRISPR technologies and his application essay to the Honors College, was a musical composition. MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez

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Josh Carter, a senior at Montana State University with a passion to develop smart prosthetics and find a way to distribute them to the people throughout the world who most need them, has been named a recipient of a 2017 Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University.

Carter was one of 32 scholars from throughout the country who learned over the weekend that they received the prestigious scholarship. He is the 11th MSU student to receive a Rhodes Scholarship, considered the oldest and one of the most prestigious international academic awards.

Carter is earning bachelor’s degrees in both mechanical engineering in the College of Engineering and microbiology in the College of Letters and Science and the College of Agriculture. He is also a student in MSU’s Honors College, and his research is supported by Montana INBRE – an Institutional Development Award from the National Institutes of Health

Carter said he plans to use the scholarship to earn a master’s in clinical neuroscience – a new field for him – to help him better understand how to develop smart prosthetics. Carter hopes to eventually earn an M.D. and a Ph.D. with a career developing smart prosthetics and finding a way to distribute them to those who might not be able to afford them.

“There is a statistic from the World Health Organization that something like 95 percent of the amputees in the developing world have no access to prosthetics,” said Carter, who hopes to work to help reverse that.

Helping others has been a passion for Carter since he grew up on a farm outside of Watertown, South Dakota. His father, Milton, is a farmer who grows potatoes made into potato chips and his mother, Christine, is a recently retired newspaper woman “who did literally almost every job there was” at the Watertown Public Opinion. Carter said that his parents instilled a dedication to public service in both him and his older brother, who is an admissions counselor at Creighton University following a stint with an AmeriCorps program in which he mentored inner-city youth in Omaha.

The Carters also instilled a love of the outdoors in their sons. Because of that, Josh said he became an Eagle Scout and an avid outdoorsman. His love of rock climbing, skiing, snowboarding and mountaineering was the prime reason that Carter selected to attend MSU sight unseen.

“Our family has a cabin in the Big Horn Mountains – on Piney Creek near Story, Wyoming – and I absolutely love that place and wanted to attend a university where I could ski and be in the mountains but that also had a good academic reputation,” Carter said.

Shortly after coming to MSU, Carter, who submitted a musical composition as his application to the MSU Honors College, attended an Honors Freshman Research Symposium. There he was fascinated as Blake Wiedenheft, professor of microbiology and immunology, spoke about the work he was doing in Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats -- or CRISPR technology -- as well as a new lab he was developing. Carter read some of Wiedenheft’s papers then contacted Wiedenheft and asked if he could join the lab. As a freshman, Carter became involved in cutting edge research focusing on the CRISPR genome editing tool -- and developed a new passion -- this one for research.

“It was immediately evident that Josh had an unusual ability to quickly understand and communicate scientific concepts that normally take considerable effort,” Wiedenheft said of Carter’s work in his lab. “In the last four years, Josh has made considerable contributions to one of the fastest moving fields in science.”

Wiedenheft explained that Carter's work with a team in the lab has helped to understand the mechanisms bacteria use to defend themselves from infection by viruses. The work is laying the foundation for what could be new treatments for a host of diseases. Carter’s work as an undergraduate resulted in four publications, one of which was a feature article recently highlighted on the cover of Science, a prestigious scientific journal, and a Goldwater Scholarship, a prestigious undergraduate scholarship for students studying science and math.

“Josh has an unusual command of computer science, mathematics, molecular biology and engineering, which is in no small part due the education he has received at MSU, but what set Josh apart is his ability to integrate these disciplines in a way that allows him to identify new challenges and to formulate solutions that draw from a broad intellectual repertoire,” Wiedenheft said. “I am delighted to hear that Josh is a Rhodes Scholar and I am confident that his accomplishments will continue to make us all proud.”

Carter said his interest and abilities in both science and engineering made majoring in both areas natural. “At first, I couldn’t decide, so I picked both of them.” Ilse-Mari Lee, dean of the MSU Honors College and one of Carter’s mentors, said that when Carter graduates in May, he will be the first student in MSU history to receive these two distinct degrees, along with a minor in Biochemistry and his Honors degree, “which is certainly not an easy thing to do.”

However, the double degrees made even more sense when he began volunteering through the Bozeman-based Eagle Mount program where he developed a passion for helping disabled children and adults enjoy the same activities that he loves so much, which he calls “an incredible opportunity.”

“I wanted to find a way to combine all of these things I’m passionate about,” Carter said.

His list of passions is long. Carter also finds time to be an active member of Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, lead a yearly project at the Bozeman Bike Kitchen that builds bicycles for disadvantaged children and play guitar with friends. He is an active mentor in University Honors College activities, including Hike and Read. He participated in the Great Expeditions class to Cuba and learned to play a Cuban trés stringed instrument. He said that when he came to MSU, “I didn’t even know about Rhodes or Goldwater Scholarships, much less think that one day I would be one.” Carter said he credits his professors, including Lee with seeing his potential and helping him develop it. He said Ron June, his mentor in mechanical engineering, has helped him develop as a scholar and a person while he has been at MSU, and Mark Young, in Department of Plant Science and Plant Pathology in the College of Agriculture “has also been an incredible mentor for my interests in science.”

MSU President Waded Cruzado said that Carter’s achievement illustrates the potential impact of higher education not only on a student's career plans, but on the path that an MSU, land-grant education can take.

“We are very proud of Josh’s Rhodes Scholarship and the work of many, many mentors at MSU that helped make such excellence possible,” Cruzado said. “Josh is a wonderful example of the Rhodes’ qualifications of academic distinction, character, commitment to others and to the common good and leadership. He is also a wonderful example of where a commitment to excellence and to others can take an MSU student.”

Carter learned he had won the Rhodes following an intense selection process in Salt Lake City over the weekend. Carter said he was “humbled and honored” to be in the same room as the 15 finalists in his district, one of 16, which included the Dakotas, Nebraska, Colorado and Utah. Carter said the selection interview, by seven panelists, was only 18 minutes long, but intense, “as you might imagine.” He was incredulous when his name was announced as one of two winners in the district.

Lee said that Carter’s excellence as a person and a scholar is one reason she believes he stood out in the field and was recognized in the very competitive Rhodes competition.

“Josh has placed his gifts in service to others,” Lee said. She pointed out that it is highly unusual for an undergraduate student to be an expert in a cutting edge field such as CRISPR technologies. “So, that he is, speaks so highly not only of our students, but of our university and the mentorship that our students receive here. Josh presents a wonderful combination of brilliance, humility, cutting edge research combined with a commitment to public service. To Josh, this scholarship it isn’t about him ---it is about people he can serve.”

Prior to Carter, the most recent MSU student to win a Rhodes was Montana University System student regent Joe Thiel, who won a Rhodes Scholarship in 2012. Previous Rhodes Scholarship winners from MSU include: Katy Hansen of Bozeman who earned a Rhodes Scholarship in 2011; Brian Johnsrud, an English graduate from Big Sandy, who won the Rhodes in 2006; Chelsea Elander of Missoula, who won a Rhodes in 2000; Jennifer DeVoe of Helena in 1995 and Maurice Burke, a former professor of mathematics at MSU, who won in 1974.

Research reported in this story was supported by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number P20GM103474. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

Ilse-Mari Lee,, (406) 994-4689