Not wanting to disturb anyone, the Montana State University juniors and friends waited until after class to return the calls. When they did, they learned that each one -- both chemistry majors -- had just received a Goldwater Scholarship. It's the nation's premier scholarship for undergraduates studying math, natural sciences and engineering. It will give each recipient up to $7,500 a year for tuition, fees, books, and room and board.
"These guys are awesome. They have enormous talent that they are destined to live up to," said Michael Miles who notified them of their awards. Miles is director of MSU's Honors Program and administrator of the Goldwater Scholarship program at MSU.
The awards are the 48th and 49th Goldwaters given to MSU students since the Goldwater Foundation was established in 1986. This year's scholarships honor the two recipients, the professors who inspired them and MSU as a whole, Miles said.
"There are only a handful of schools in the country that have more Goldwater scholarships than Montana State University," Miles said. "We're talking places like Harvard and Stanford."
MSU currently ranks 14th in the nation for the number of Goldwater scholars. How the accomplishments of Azzarelli and Naab will change that ranking won't be known for several weeks.
MSU President Geoff Gamble said, "I'm very proud of these students and the role that MSU faculty played in their success. I'm also proud of MSU's ability to attract outstanding students and offer them an education that helps them continue to achieve."
Azzarelli and Naab became friends while taking chemistry courses at MSU and seem to be following similar paths. Each spent last summer conducting research at other universities. Both want to be chemistry professors whose research improves public health. Naab's particular interest is cancer.
"After seeing the professors here on campus and how they interact with students, I think it would be cool to inspire another generation of chemistry students," Naab said.
Azzarelli, from Evergreen, Colo., said he came to MSU because of its reputation and because he loved fly fishing. He signed up for organic chemistry as a sophomore, but was intimidated by the thought of it. Hien Nguyen, assistant professor of chemistry, proved to be a great teacher, however, and he thoroughly enjoyed the class, Azzarelli said. As a result, Azzarelli asked Nguyen if he could join his research group. Azzarelli started working in Nguyen's lab, developing new catalysts for the synthesis of compounds that fight staph infections.
Azzarelli then applied for the Amgen Scholars program which allowed him to spend last summer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There, he was part of a research group that studied palladium catalyzed cross-coupling reactions. It is a fundamental field of organic research that has broad industrial applications. While the theory behind it is simple, Azzarelli said it is still not very well understood and, therefore, can be difficult to put into practice.
This summer, Azzarelli will work with a research group at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. He was one of 15 people to be awarded a summer research fellowship from the American Chemical Society Division of Organic Chemistry.
His research experiences and a trip to Costa Rica led him to see the value of working across disciplines, Azzarelli continued. While visiting banana plantations, he saw people with visible tumors and chronic coughing. The tumors seemed to result from lack of environmental controls over toxic pesticides and fertilizers.
"That was one more piece in the puzzle," Azzarelli said. "There's still a lot of room for improvement in the field of chemistry and its many applications, and this is what really drives me."
Naab, from Orono, Minn., said he signed up as a chemistry major at MSU, but didn't think he'd do much with it until he took organic chemistry from Nguyen. Nguyen didn't emphasize memorization, but taught his students how to think creatively about scientific problems, Naab said. It was almost like art.
"In organic chemistry, I found a science where creativity and logic combined to form a world more elegant than I ever imagined," Naab wrote in his Goldwater application. "I discovered my passion and I craved an opportunity to further my knowledge of this wonderful field of science."
He has been impressed with the opportunities MSU gave him to do research, even when success wasn't guaranteed, Naab said about his research pertaining to carbohydrate synthesis. Besides working with Nguyen, Naab spent last summer conducting research at the University of Minnesota through the National Science Foundation program, Research Experience for Undergraduates. This summer, Naab will conduct research at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. He was one of 15 to 20 people nationally who received the opportunity.
Nguyen definitely inspired him and Azzarelli, Naab said. Nguyen said, in turn, that the two inspired him.
"They are very, very talented," Nguyen said. "I'm sure in the future, they will do better than I do now."
Nguyen added that, "They think I pushed them really hard, but they pushed me really hard to be a good teacher."
Emphasizing the importance of professors, Miles said, "There are so many outstanding professors here at the university who do their work day by day beneath the radar. Both Joe and Ben were inspired within the classroom and laboratory. If any of us occasionally needs to be reminded of the vital importance of what we do, no matter what our subject area, the story of Ben and Joe is testimony enough. The poet Dante said it best: ‛From a little spark comes a great flame.'"
For a related article, see:
"Absarokee native receives MSU's 47th Goldwater" at http://www.montana.edu/cpa/news/nwview.php?article=4712
Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or firstname.lastname@example.org