Montana State University

MSU graduate wins prestigious National Institutes of Health fellowship

July 20, 2010 -- Anne Cantrell, MSU News Service

Recent MSU graduate Bridgett McNulty's $30,000 fellowship will fund a year of research at the NIH campus in Bethesda, Md. She will work in an NIH researcher's laboratory, studying the molecular and cellular factors in the development of the inner ear. McNulty is pictured here working at MSU. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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A former rodeo barrel racer who paid her way through college by selling her horses and working long hours has won a prestigious post-baccalaureate fellowship from the National Institutes of Health.

Recent Montana State University graduate Bridgett McNulty's $30,000 fellowship will fund a year of research, with an option to continue for a second year, at the NIH campus in Bethesda, Md. She will work in an NIH researcher's laboratory, studying the molecular and cellular factors in the development of the inner ear. When development occurs incorrectly, it can result in a loss of hearing, which often leads to deafness. Because this type of hearing loss is relatively common, McNulty's laboratory research discoveries could have wide-reaching effects.

The honor of being one of just 10, out of hundreds of applicants, chosen for the fellowship makes McNulty proud.

"It's a real confidence boost," she said.

McNulty, 21, graduated from MSU in the spring of 2010 with a bachelor's degree in biochemistry and a second major in cell biology and neuroscience. She speculates that her philosophical approach to research may be one of the qualities that made her fellowship application stand out. In one of the application essays, McNulty discussed how researchers must work incredibly hard, often for a tiny reward or for no reward at all. In fact, McNulty says that many times, researchers won't succeed in finding what they want.

"A lot of students don't know how to fail. They get frustrated," McNulty said. "I made sure to emphasize that I can get bucked off the horse, repeatedly, and get back up again."

McNulty knows quite literally how to get back up on the horse after getting bucked off.

A former barrel rodeo racer, she grew up in Lodge Grass and Great Falls, where she graduated from C. M. Russell High School.

Her parents, both teachers, taught her the value of hard work and strength in the face of adversity, said McNulty, who is part Chippewa Cree.

"We were poor, but very educated," McNulty said. "We lived paycheck to paycheck in a trailer with dollar-store Christmases. But I wouldn't trade it for anything."

Her decision to enroll at MSU was motivated primarily by its affordability.

"It was a money issue," she said. "I also looked at going to (the University of Washington) and UCLA, but I couldn't afford either of them." In fact, McNulty sold her four horses that she rode throughout high school to help pay for her freshman year of college. She said it was a sacrifice that came with a certain amount of sadness, but was a good investment.

"I'll probably have horses again someday," she said.

But even though MSU wasn't her first choice, McNulty says she realized as soon as she got to campus how great MSU actually is. The support of MSU faculty has been important to her, and she said her experiences as an MSU student have been invaluable.

"I wouldn't have been able to do research as a freshman at UW or UCLA," McNulty said. "I was able to engage in research at a very early age, and I continue to engage in research. Ultimately, this was the best school I could have gone to."

McNulty had to work hard to be at MSU. While taking classes, she held several different jobs to help pay for her schooling, often working 40 or more hours per week. In addition to research jobs on campus and at Cleanwaste, a company in Belgrade that specializes in human waste management, she performed computer and network support on campus and worked as a cocktail waitress.

She also took out loans and received support from Montana INBRE, the Undergraduate Scholars Program at MSU, the Hughes Undergraduate Biology Program at MSU and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

The MSU professor who is perhaps most familiar with McNulty's work says her determination serves her well.

"She is very hardworking, diligent and very motivated," said Roger Bradley, a cell biology and neuroscience professor and McNulty's adviser. "She has overcome a couple of different obstacles (in her research) because of that."

Bradley, who knows of only one other MSU student who has previously received the NIH fellowship, says it should be invaluable for McNulty.

"It really sets her on a track to succeed in doing research in the future," Bradley said. "She's going to be working with top-notch NIH scientists who can really help guide her future choices in what she wants to work on in terms of future health."

McNulty also hopes that the NIH fellowship's focus on training participants to pursue research will improve her chances of getting into a good medical school. She recently took the MCAT, the medical school entrance exam, and plans to apply to medical schools while she is completing the NIH fellowship.

She would like to pursue clinical research through a program for medical doctors.

Her decision to apply to medical school illustrates part of what has driven McNulty throughout her life.

"I like to be challenged, and I think medical school will push me to my very limit," McNulty said.

Eventually, McNulty would like to return to Montana to work on the Crow Reservation.

"That is where I grew up. I think going back is required of me," she said.

Through rodeo-related injuries, McNulty says she has witnessed firsthand how ill-equipped many reservation medical facilities are.

"After my friend broke her arm barrel racing, I visited doctor's offices that didn't have up-to-date equipment," McNulty said. "The X-ray machines were 50 years old. I'd like to address that."

For now, though, McNulty plans to focus on her research in the NIH lab.

"This is going to be a challenge for me, but I'm ready for it," she said. She'll begin work at the NIH campus in early August.

Bridgett McNulty,