Montana State University

Three for the show: Trio of female Chemical Engineering seniors win top NSF graduate fellowship

May 2, 2011 -- By Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service


Nicole Schonenbach (from left), Chandra Macauley and Kate Morrissey are three women who share friendship, a chemical engineering major, and now a bright future as recipients of the National Science Foundation's prestigious Graduate Research Fellowship. It is unusual for one department to have three winners of the prestigious fellowship that pays $30,000 plus tuition and fees annually for graduate research, according to Ron Larsen, head of MSU's Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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Three members of the graduating class of Montana State University's Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, all female, have won prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships.

Chandra Macauley of Billings, Kathryn Morrissey of Colorado Springs, Colo., and Nicole Schonenbach of Ashland are all recipients of the fellowship, which provides them $30,000 a year, plus tuition and fees, to support three years of graduate education.

The trio is one-third of the number of MSU-affiliated students who received the award this year. Seven current or previous MSU graduates received the award and two students from other institutions plan to use their award to study at MSU.

"It's not uncommon to have one (NSF graduate winner) in one department, but three is pretty unprecedented," said Ron Larsen, head of MSU's Chemical and Biological Engineering department. Larsen said that while one-third of chemical engineering students are women, among the highest among engineering disciplines, "the fact that all three are women is remarkable."

However, the winners say that what is remarkable is not how much they share -- that they are females in the same engineering major -- but how much they differ. They received their awards from three different sections of the NSF, and each has a different research interest within the same discipline.

Macauley received her fellowship in materials science and engineering, Morrissey in environmental science and Schonenbach in chemical engineering.

"It just shows that chemical engineering is so wonderfully diverse," Macauley said.

And speaking of diversity, the three agree that chemical engineering seems to be appealing to females.

"I think it's because of the chemistry (in the discipline)," Schonenbach said. "It makes our work that much more interesting. There's so much you can do with it."

All three winners have done prestigious research at MSU and other top universities across the globe, which contributed to their award. Larsen said that in addition to academic excellence, NSF graduate research recipients have to have experience in research and "usually something else on top of that. ... Something else has to stand out."

For instance, Macauley " has won about every award there is to win on campus." She came to MSU on an MUS Honors Scholarship, although she had considered attending Colorado School of Mines.

"MSU was definitely cheaper with a great engineering program and the outdoor activities I cared about," she said.

Macauley said she didn't even learn about chemical engineering until she was a senior at Billings Skyview and a teacher suggested it to her. Since then, attracting other students to engineering has been her passion. A past officer in MSU's Society of Women Engineers chapter, she helped grow the MSU Shadow an Engineer Major program that brings high school students to campus from 30 students to 130 students. A member of the College of Engineering's Ambassadors, she has won an Excellence Award for being one of MSU's top seniors.

While at MSU, Macauley has done research in the high temperature corrosion laboratory lab of professor Paul Gannon, also in CHBE. She also did summer research projects on wind turbine lubricants at Exxon Mobil in New Jersey and the next generation of solar cells at the Colorado School of Mines. But her life changing experience came when she studied energy engineering on a year-long exchange at Mälardalen University in Sweden, which she said is far in advance of the U.S. in sustainable-energy systems.

Macauley will pursue a graduate degree in materials science engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara under Carlos Levi. She plans a career in alternative energy applications at an international company.

"MSU is hard to beat for giving students opportunities," Macauley said. "We have all the environment plus undergraduate research opportunities."

Larsen said that Morrissey, who is an exceptional student, has done wonderful research outside the COE.
Morrissey has worked in biochemistry research in the lab of biochemistry professor Valerie Copie doing metabolomics research, or the study of the unique chemical fingerprints that specific cellular processes leave behind.

Morrissey is the daughter of an engineering graduate from MSU. "Basically, everyone in my family went to MSU," she said. She had always loved math and science and had looked at staying in Colorado, but her dad suggested she consider MSU, which was affordable because of Western Undergraduate Education and the MSU Alumni Legacy scholarships.

"He said if I wanted to ski and get a good education in engineering, this was the place."

Morrissey, who said she frequently wore snow pants to one of her classes to enable a quick get-away to Bridger when she was done, said MSU was indeed the perfect place for her. "I have loved every minute here," she said.

While at MSU, Morrissey did research on an exchange at the University of Bergen in Norway. A member of the Women in Engineering Student Advisory Council, Morrissey also traveled to Kenya with Engineers Without Borders at MSU conducting water quality research, and has been an EWB organizer. She said the experience of traveling to Africa changed her life. She plans to study water quality and will study for a graduate degree in environmental engineering or environmental studies from either the University of Colorado or MSU, with an eventual goal of working to help improve the environment worldwide.

She, too, believes that the opportunity to conduct research as an undergraduate at MSU advanced her application. "I think MSU is unique as a small school with great research opportunities and a great reputation," she said.

Larsen said Schonenbach has had an dynamic journey that started in one of Montana's smallest towns and took her to academic excellence and opportunities at America's top institutions, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Schonenbach is used to long journeys. A native of Ashland, she graduated from Broadus High School thanks to a 45-mile bus ride each way from her home. She had planned to attend college in Minnesota, but came to MSU on a Montana University System Honors Scholarship. At first, she intended to study architecture.

"I didn't know if I would like the design aspect of architecture, and I didn't," she said. "I did know that I liked chemistry in high school." She said she blossomed when she transferred to chemical engineering. In her years at MSU, Schonenbach has researched algae biodiesel in the lab of professor Brent Peyton, also of chemical engineering. Her most recent work is to study the effects of various temperatures on the biomass and lipid production of a green alga and a diatom, both isolated from Yellowstone National Park for biodiesel as an alternative to petroleum fuels.

Schonenbach's work has taken her to summer internships at the Idaho National Lab as well as to a summer research experience at MIT. She said her professional journey is so different than life in her hometown that many people there had not heard of MIT before. "But they were very proud of me and have given me great support." Next year, she will attend UCSB where she hopes to work in the area of biomedicine. Her eventual plans call for research and work with a drug delivery system for cancer and eventual plans for a career in research and development of pharmaceuticals.

As diverse as their interests, all three of the women are good friends. In fact, they passed along word of the award to each other. Schonenbach found out about the NSF award first, from a Facebook site for chemical engineering grad students, which had a link to the winners. Macauley received a text from Schonenbach about her award. The two of them flagged down Morrissey in the department's computer lab and told her to check her e-mail, "because she would like what she saw," and watched as she opened it. The three said they were ecstatic. Later, Larsen, who has recently taken a cake decorating class with his wife in preparation for his daughter's wedding, baked the three winners a cake.

"We're a very close class," Morrissey said. "We're sort of like a family."

"We do have a lot of support among each other," Macauley said of the class. "It's been everything, and more, than I expected my college experience to be."

Ron Larsen (406) 994-2221, ronl@coe.montana.edu