Montana State University

MSU student wins NSF fellowship, hopes to fuse engineering and international development

April 24, 2017 -- Marshall Swearingen, MSU News Service

Carol Baumbauer, a senior in electrical engineering at Montana State University, inspects a silicon chip with nano-structured polarizers on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017, in Bozeman, Montana. The National Science Foundation recently announced Baumbauer as recipient of the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez

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BOZEMAN - Montana State University senior Carol Baumbauer has won a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, which she hopes will allow her to weave together her passions for technology and international development.

The fellowship provides three years of financial support, including a $34,000 annual stipend and $12,000 cost-of-education allowance. Baumbauer, who is double majoring in electrical engineering in MSU’s College of Engineering and French and Francophone studies in the College of Letters and Science, will apply the fellowship as she continues her engineering research while pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley, starting in August.

“I really enjoy research, but I want to be able to use it in ways that benefit humanity,” Baumbauer said.

Since she came to MSU in 2012 with a Presidential Scholarship, Baumbauer has conducted research about the unique optical properties of nano-scale structures in the lab of Wataru Nakagawa, associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Working primarily in the Montana Microfabrication Facility, a state-of-the-art cleanroom, she has etched tiny ridges that can precisely control the polarization of light. In collaboration with others in the department, the technology is being applied to make sensors that could be used to analyze the composition of clouds, as well as tiny imaging systems used in endoscopy, a minimally invasive medical procedure for imaging the inside of patients’ organs and vessels.

“I’ve gained valuable experience working with others, training new students, and learning about grant writing and presentations (through these research activities),” she said.

Baumbauer said she valued the availability of resources like the Montana Microfabrication Facility to undergraduates at MSU. “In a lot of other places, those (resources) would be dominated by graduate students. The opportunities here have been amazing.”

Baumbauer, a Bozeman native, travelled to Nepal the summer after her freshman year as part of an MSU Honors College class, and later served as vice president of MSU’s chapter of the national organization Engineers Without Borders, which helps communities meet basic needs, such as clean water and sanitation, through engineering projects. The MSU group has worked mainly with primary schools in Kenya to install deep wells that tap aquifers to supply clean water, composting latrines, systems to catch and purify rainwater and a water pipeline. On Baumbauer’s second trip to Kenya, in 2015, she served as a project manager, supervising the first-time participants.

Baumbauer said she appreciated the cultural exchange and international collaboration aspects of her overseas experiences. “These trips opened my eyes to the real challenges of facilitating positive change, and helped shape how I think about service.”

Her travels also exposed a gap between her research at MSU and her desire to serve those who could benefit most from engineering technology. “One month I’d be somewhere that doesn’t have clean water; the next I’d be evaporating gold on silicon chips (in the cleanroom at MSU),” she said. “It was a division that was hard to make sense of.”

Baumbauer “has a very strong sense of social responsibility,” said Nakagawa. “She works incredibly hard to maintain academic excellence, and has demonstrated an interest in applying this knowledge to solve real problems and help others.”

By providing her freedom to choose the direction of her research, the Graduate Research Fellowship presents an opportunity to combine her interests in electrical engineering technology and international development, Baumbauer said. At Berkeley, she will also have the option to pair her engineering studies with a program in international development, she said.

“The projects I’m most excited about have applications in medicine or clean energy,” she said.

The National Science Foundation selected this year’s 2,000 recipients of the Graduate Research Fellowship from a pool of more than 13,000 applicants. According to the NSF, the Graduate Research Fellowship Program is a critical part of the agency’s overall strategy to develop a globally engaged workforce necessary to ensure the nation's leadership in advancing science and engineering.

Contact: Carol Baumbauer,; or Wataru Nakagawa,, (406) 994-5956.

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