Montana State University

MSU student receives prestigious Goldwater Scholarship

April 3, 2017 -- Denise Hoepfner, MSU News Service

Magdalena (Maggie) Russell has received a 2017 Goldwater Scholarship, the nation’s premier scholarship for undergraduates studying math, natural sciences and engineering. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham

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BOZEMAN – A Montana State University student who is researching compounds that could be used to treat a neurodegenerative disease has received the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship, the nation’s premier scholarship for undergraduates studying math, natural sciences and engineering.

Magdalena (Maggie) Russell of Bozeman received the scholarship, which gives her up to $7,500 a year for tuition, fees, books, and room and board. Russell, who in 2014 received the MSU Presidential Scholarship, is a junior in the MSU Honors College and a student in MSU’s College of Letters and Science, majoring in cell biology and neuroscience with a minor in math

MSU has now produced 68 Goldwater scholars, keeping the university one of the nation’s top institutions for number of recipients. 

“We are delighted that Maggie Russell is MSU's 68th Goldwater Scholar,” said Ilse-Mari Lee, dean of MSU’s Honors College. “We first met Maggie three years ago when she interviewed for the MSU Presidential Scholarship. It was abundantly clear to our committee that she was on a trajectory towards tremendous success, both academically and as an undergraduate researcher.” 

Russell is doing research in MSU Letters and Science Distinguished Professor Frances Lefcort’s lab. Lefcort’s research is in familial dysautonomia, a genetic disease that devastates the sensory and autonomic nervous systems. In Lefcort’s lab, Russell cultures neurons in vitro and then tests compounds to see if it is possible to rescue some of the cells that die as a result of the familial dysautonomia. 

She began working in the lab the summer before her freshman year under the guidance of Lefcort and MSU doctoral students Sarah Ohlen and Haley Dunkel. She said the goal of making progress against the disease inspired her to continue the research in subsequent years. 

“It’s really exciting, the thought of working to develop potential therapeutics,” Russell said. 

The early experience of working in Lefcort’s lab also contributed to Russell’s decision to enroll at MSU, which she originally opposed because it was so familiar to her, having grown up roaming the campus where her mother, Ronda Russell, MSU’s director of admissions, works. 

Last year, Russell was able to expand on her laboratory experience as part of a semester-long exchange to the University of Oslo in Norway. Along with taking classes at the university, she conducted research at the Norwegian Center for Stem Cell Research under its director, Joel Glover, a colleague of Lefcort’s. 

“I used many of the same techniques I learned at MSU, but the experience of working in a different lab setting taught me a lot about what different research environments can be like,” Russell said. “I really enjoy doing research.” 

Glover said he enjoyed hosting Russell in his research group, where her contributions "substantially helped push the project forward.

"Not only did she contribute solidly to an ongoing laboratory research project while pursuing a parallel course of study, but she also always brought a smile and a cheerful attitude with her to the lab, brightening everyone´s day," he said. "Scientifically, she helped characterize the gene expression pattern of neurons in the brainstem that give rise to descending axonal projections to the spinal cord."

Russell credits the excellent mentorship she has had at MSU, and previously in Bozeman’s public schools, as one reason for her success. 

“Growing up in Bozeman, I had some outstanding science teachers including (Bozeman High School biology teacher) Paul Andersen and (Sacajawea Middle School science teacher) Sheri Juroszek, who first got me excited about science,” she said. “Then, I came to MSU and Frances and everyone in her lab have continued to support me.”

Lefcort said she is looking forward to more exciting discoveries in her lab during Russell's senior year.

Russell said she is also grateful for the strong support of Lee and MSU’s Honors College, as well as MSU’s Undergraduate Scholars Program and Montana INBRE, in helping her achieve her goals. 

“MSU is a really great place, especially the Honors College,” she said. “They’ll help you find opportunities early on and I’m very grateful to have them in my corner.”   

This summer, Russell will work with Dr. Stephen Tapscott at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle as part of the center’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program. Tapscott’s lab focuses on developing therapeutics for muscular dystrophy.

While Russell has not yet firmed up her post-graduation plans, some possibilities include pursuing a Ph.D. or M.D./Ph.D. She said she is interested in continuing her research in developing therapeutics for neurodegenerative diseases.

Contact: Ilse-Mari Lee, dean, MSU Honors College, (406) 994-4110 or ilselee@montana.edu