Montana State University

Sought-after MSU grad receives NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

June 16, 2010 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


Ben Naab, a recent Montana State University graduate, has won an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship to study chemistry at Stanford University. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham).   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
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BOZEMAN -- Ben Naab says his high school grades were nothing to brag about, but no one would suspect that by his performance at Montana State University.

The recent graduate who was inspired to pursue chemistry by a family illness and an "awesome" instructor won a prestigious Goldwater Scholarship in 2009. He was one of 40 MSU seniors to receive an Award for Excellence this spring. He earned almost a perfect score on the Graduate Record Examination in chemistry. Sought after by the top chemistry professors in the nation, he has now received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to pursue his doctorate in chemistry at Stanford University.

The fellowship gives Naab $30,000 a year for three years starting this fall, $1,000 for international travel and access to the NSF's super computer, TeraGrid. Twelve thousand students applied for 2,000 fellowships awarded this year. Approximately 100 of the fellowships went to chemistry majors. Three fellowships went to MSU graduates, including Naab.

"Every top professor (in chemistry) knows who he is. His accomplishments are incredible," said Hien Nguyen, one of Naab's mentors, now an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Iowa.

Besides winning major awards, Naab conducted significant undergraduate research and published his findings in scientific journals, Nguyen said. Naab and Nguyen conducted two research projects together, both involving carbohydrate synthesis relating to cancer and HIV. Their results were published in the Journal of Organic Chemistry.

"Carbohydrates play important and very specific roles in cellular recognition and regulation," Naab said. "If one can understand and manipulate these interactions, then it may be possible to selectively destroy diseased cells."

Naab continues to conduct research this summer in Trevor Rainey's lab at MSU. The lab focuses on natural product synthesis. Naab is tweaking a procedure that pharmaceutical companies might use if they develop one of those products.

Two summers ago, Naab conducted research at the University of Minnesota through the NSF program, Research Experiences for Undergraduates. His team's findings on the fundamental chemical processes that occur in metalloproteins were published in Inorganic Chemistry.

"It is important to understand how metalloproteins work, because they are ubiquitous in biology," Naab said.

Last summer, Naab conducted research at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. His work involved the chemical synthesis of a natural product that has therapeutic potential related to cancer and infectious diseases.

"I think he has tremendous potential," Nguyen said.

Naab, from Orono, Minn., said he applied for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship as if he were proposing an actual research project he would carry out at Sloan-Kettering. He came up with the idea for a research project, then reviewed the scientific literature to make sure his proposal was entirely new. Before submitting it, he consulted extensively with Nguyen and David Gin, his summer mentor at Sloan-Kettering.

Nguyen said the proposal was a "very, very innovative" way to solve one of the most important problems in the synthesis of alkaloid products. Alkaloids are colorless, bitter substances that can have a strong toxic effect on humans or animals. Many alkaloids, such as cocaine, nicotine and morphine, are very biologically active. In chemistry, biological activity means a compound has potential medicinal applications.

Naab said the fellowship doesn't require him to carry out the research project he proposed. Perhaps he will pursue it someday. Once he's at Stanford, Naab said he will most likely study organic chemistry. His research will probably focus on catalysis, the speeding up or slowing down of a chemical reaction by adding a substance that doesn't change itself.

He eventually wants to become a chemistry professor whose research improves public health, Naab said. When he received his Goldwater, Naab said, "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."

This summer he added, "My interest in health stems from my desire to legitimize my future research, and from the many instances in my life where people around me have suffered from disease."

His mother was diagnosed with breast cancer while he was in middle school, Naab said. She is now in remission, but her diagnosis sparked his ongoing interest in research.

"During this time, I witnessed the harsh realities of chemotherapy," Naab said. "It goes without saying that this experience has had a lasting impact on my career goals. I just find it absolutely astounding that nearly every person in the U.S. either will or has been affected by cancer, and yet the best we've got are concoctions of drugs that poison the patient."

He is not solely interested in cancer research, however.

"I'm a curious person who's interested in many things, and it just so happens that synthetic chemistry is positioned such that a research can make contributions to any number of problems," Naab said.

Naab said he declared chemistry as his major when he enrolled at MSU, but the subject didn't resonate until he was a sophomore and took Nguyen's honors course in organic chemistry.

Nguyen is an "awesome professor" who taught him how to think creatively about molecular structures and reactions rather than memorize equations, Naab said. It was through Nguyen that Naab saw the beauty of chemistry. Chemistry became the field that Naab had thought it might be.

"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."

Nguyen said he challenges his students and teaches them to think so they can apply their knowledge to real-life situations. He added that the approach benefits students, no matter what careers they decide to pursue.

By the middle of his sophomore year, Naab said he had a high grade point average and was more focused on what he wanted to do, so he considered transferring to the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Nguyen said the chemistry program there is one of the top 10 in the nation. Naab said the Wisconsin school also offers in-state tuition to Minnesota residents.

Nguyen convinced Naab to stay at MSU by telling him that he would help him with his career and that Naab would have opportunities to get involved in real research.

Nguyen was true to his word, Naab said. And as Naab thought about graduate school, Nguyen said he told him to apply only to the nation's top five programs in chemistry because he would be accepted at all of them. That proved to be correct, Nguyen said. He added that the "top, top" chemistry professors at Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, the University of California, Berkeley; and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign all wanted Naab because of his accomplishments at such a young age.

Gin, Naab's mentor at Sloan-Kettering, said Naab stands out because of his motivation, scientific sophistication, maturity, drive and curiosity. He added that Naab was one of the best undergraduate students he has ever worked with.

"I think he's going to be a scientific leader in his generation," Gin said.

When Naab decided to pursue his doctoral degree at Stanford, he selected the same university attended by another high-achieving MSU graduate in chemistry. Luke Oltrogge of Absarokee is there now working on his Ph.D. Like Naab, Oltrogge received a Goldwater Scholarship and an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.

"The NSF fellowship is very competitive," Oltrogge said. "It's a significant honor to receive one and highly regarded in the scientific community.

"The most important thing that a fellowship does is to give you the academic freedom to work with anyone at the university," Oltrogge continued. "It can sometimes be very competitive to get into a lab. With a fellowship, you are free to pursue your interests wherever they might lead."

Naab said he doesn't know what opportunities he might've had if he had transferred as an undergraduate, but he doesn't see how he could have achieved more success than he had at MSU. He added that MSU's location also gave him the opportunity to pursue outdoor interests, such as skiing, hiking and camping.

"I'm very pleased about my time at MSU. I'm very glad I stayed here," Naab said. "MSU was definitely the best choice for me."

For related articles, see:
"Recent MSU graduate wins $121,500 from the National Science Foundation" at http://www.montana.edu/cpa/news/nwview.php?article=8554

"MSU grad receives NSF fellowship to turn waste into product" at
http://www.montana.edu/cpa/news/nwview.php?article=8557

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu