Montana State University

Tough break leads to new career path for MSU student

March 2, 2005 -- by Annette Trinity-Stevens

Katie Newell of Roundup, Mont., aspires to medical school and said her experiences in a research lab should help get her there. (MSU photo by Erin Raley.)   High-Res Available

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Until she got to sixth grade, Katie Newell, 20, was reasonably sure she wanted to be a biologist like her dad, Jay.

But one day during hunting season she crossed the highway near Lavina, Mont., and switched career goals.

Not casually, mind you. She was helping her dad, who works for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, at a game check station when she crossed the road to use a restroom. On her way back a car hit her.

Surgeries on a broken leg ensued and, despite the horror of being struck by more than a ton of moving metal, Newell began to think about medical school.

"I remember being amazed that the doctors were able to do surgery on my knee with an extremely small incision," she said.

Now a junior in biomedical science at Montana State University, Newell hasn't wavered from her goal. As a sophomore she began doing research in a lab on campus to increase her odds of getting into medical school. A year later she's about to become a coauthor on a research paper on developmental biology.

She's thought about the type of medicine she wants to practice--obstetrics, pediatrics or some combination of the two. She's considered where she'll practice--in a rural area like Roundup, Mont, where she grew up. And she's dreamed about using her healing skills for the international relief organization Doctors Without Borders, either before she settles into practice or after she retires.

Described by her research advisor as inquisitive and a hard worker, Newell already has made real contributions to science.

"She's progressed quickly into being independent and able to proceed to the next step on her own," Roger Bradley, an MSU assistant professor of cell biology and neuroscience, said.

Newell has worked with Bradley to learn more about defects that can occur at the embryonic stage of growth. They work with the embryos of African clawed frogs--Xenopus embryos, to be precise--but the work may relate to such birth defects in humans as spina bifida, in which the neural tube doesn't completely close, and anencephaly, a disorder involving incomplete brain or spinal cord development.

Newell gets paid for her time in the lab during the school year through the Undergraduate Scholars Program and through the Complex Biological Systems program in the summer. Both programs are aimed at giving students hands-on opportunities to apply what they learn in class or to steer their learning in an independent direction.

"A lot of the techniques we've done I've heard about in class but had never done until coming to the lab," Newell said. Overall, she added, the Undergraduate Scholars Program has given her a head start on classroom material.

She'll continue the research this semester, but next year, as a senior, she anticipates being too busy applying to medical schools in the fall and spending time with friends during her final semester at MSU in the spring to spend much time in the lab.

Despite the broken leg that changed her career goals, Newell runs between six and seven miles a day. She also backpacks and skis a little, but her real free-time pleasure is reading. Saturday nights she's likely to be engrossed in a book, which is the lifestyle, she laughs, of a "dork." Right now she's reading "Stiff," which chronicles the use of cadavers throughout history.

"To not get caught up in what everyone else is doing" would be her advice to other students, she said. "Do what you want to be doing."

Contact: Steve Holmgren, (406) 994-5393