WSU News

Student scientists win national Goldwater awards

PULLMAN, Wash. – Washington State University undergraduates Sarah Brewer, Nick Negretti and Fiorella Grandi are scientists who want to make the world a better place. To help with their education, they have received national awards from the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Program.

“All three WSU students were outstanding candidates for the Goldwater this year, and the fact that they won these scholarships is a strong testament to both their excellence and the excellence of the WSU programs of which they are a part,” said Mary Sanchez Lanier, WSU Goldwater faculty representative. She leads the team that reviews student applications and recommends up to four to be nominated each year by WSU to the Goldwater foundation. Assistant vice provost, associate dean of the University College and clinical associate professor in the School of Molecular Biosciences (SMB), she also serves on the panel that reviews Goldwater scholar applications nationally.

WSU has had 18 Goldwaters

Brewer, Negretti and Grandi are the sixth, seventh and eighth WSU students in the past five years to receive Goldwater scholarships. Since 1990, WSU has had 18 Goldwater scholarship winners and six honorable mentions; 2013 is the first year for three WSU awardees. The Goldwater is a prestigious, distinguished scholarship with one- and two-year awards to students who intend to pursue careers in math, the natural sciences or engineering.

This year, 1,107 top eligible students were nominated nationwide and 271 were selected for the award of $7,500 that covers tuition, fees, books and room and board at their home institution. Seven recipients, including Brewer and Negretti, are from Washington and attend, in addition to WSU, Cal Tech, Dartmouth, University of Colorado, Saint Olaf and the University of Idaho. Two recipients, including Grandi, are from Idaho. 

Award-winning researchers

Brewer, Negretti and Grandi share many academic similarities. They were inspired by high school teachers to either conduct scientific research or learn to think critically; knew they wanted to study at WSU; have made presentations about their research at scientific conferences or to lay audiences; will graduate in May 2014 and head to graduate school; and have won various awards for their research. Negretti and Brewer received Regents scholarships to WSU and jumped into research in their first days at college. 

Beyond these, their paths have followed their individual pursuits:

Brewer: Developing drought-resistant plants to feed future generations

Goldwater BrewerOlympia native Brewer, 21, describes herself as a “plant-oholic” who first got her hands dirty in a backyard greenhouse where she and her stepfather grew 16 varieties of tomatoes. A favorite high school teacher, Ed Bassett, ignited her interest in biology and inspired a curiosity for how plants work on a fundamental level. He also introduced her to WSU Regents Professor Norman Lewis, professor of molecular plant sciences and chemistry and director of the Institute of Biological Chemistry (IBC).

Funded by a National Science Foundation grant, Brewer was selected to be a high school intern in Lewis’ lab the summer between her junior and senior years. She returned to the lab her first day on campus as a freshman and has been there ever since, working as part of the $40 million Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance that Lewis conceived and led. Her work has resulted in conference presentations, and a publication is being finalized.

Now a junior, Brewer has two majors: one in agricultural biotechnology in the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences’s integrated plant sciences program that focuses on the science of plant life from molecule to market; and another in biochemistry in the College of Veterinary Medicine’s SMB, which specializes in the study of life at the molecular level.

Ag biotech emphasizes the development and application of new technology to ensure a safe and abundant food and fiber supply. It aligns perfectly with Brewer’s career goal to earn a Ph.D. in plant biology, become a university professor teaching undergraduates and inspiring them to pursue science careers, and doing interdisciplinary research in molecular plant sciences.

“Plants are important to food, medicine and fibers so there are many directions my work could go,” she said. “It’s difficult to know how to make oneself most useful as a plant scientist. I think about societies facing food shortages and challenges in coming years, plus how climate change is impacting the entire world. I think I’d like to create new cultivars of plants for the future that would be drought resistant.”

In her Goldwater application, Brewer describes proposed research in the Lewis lab that could lead to a new protein-rich human and animal consumable: cotton seed. While the seeds are 22 percent protein, some gossypol molecules in them are toxic to non-ruminant animals.

Brewer’s experimental approach could involve discovering how cotton plants produce gossypol and establishing the biochemical/molecular reasons for formation of the non-toxic enantiomer (mirror image). Conducted over the coming year, the project also will be used for her Honors College thesis.

Brewer applied for the Goldwater after hearing presentations on various distinguished scholarships. She hopes to qualify next for a Marshall scholarship that would allow her to study in the United Kingdom.

Negretti: Exploring how humans interact with microbes in the environment

Goldwater NegrettiEnrolled in teacher Randy James’ experimental research-based biology program at Spokane’s North Central High School, Negretti arrived at 6 a.m. daily to work on his project investigating bacteria associated with bees. In his first WSU semester, he enrolled in a class funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) where students isolated microbacteriophages; he presented his work and won first place at the annual HHMI Science Education Alliance Phages conference in Virginia.

In his second semester, Negretti joined the SMB Students Targeted toward Advanced Research Studies (STARS) program. It gives select students a chance to accelerate the learning process so they can earn a Ph.D. in as few as seven years, fast-tracking into professional life in the biosciences. It provides funding for research activities, summer research experiences in labs with top faculty in the life sciences and the opportunity to major in biochemistry, genetics and cell biology, or microbiology.

STARS’ director and professor Bill Davis encouraged Negretti to apply for the Goldwater.

A microbiology major, Negretti has worked on projects in three labs as part of the STARS experiential rotation. In professor John Alderete’s lab, Negretti designed and used a protocol to detect the presence of DNA from Trichomonas vaginalis (a sexually transmitted pathogen) in prostate tissue and fluid samples.

In professor Margaret Black’s lab, he is using a revised protocol to enhance random mutagenesis to find an improved enzyme to use in suicide gene therapy, a targeted chemotherapeutic treatment; he included an essay about this work in his Goldwater application. This summer, he will work in professor Michael Konkel’s foodborne pathogens lab.

Thanks to the STARS program, Negretti, 20, will take his first graduate class this fall as a senior working toward a Ph.D. in molecular biosciences at WSU. His goal is to become a research scientist at a university or federal institution. He wants to lead a team focusing on infectious diseases and “how this or that microbe interacts with humans.”

“I think about how much we’ve learned in this area in, say, the past 30 years,” he said. “For example, who knew then that ulcers were caused by bacteria? We have to do basic research for a long time before results meet the medical world.

“I want to improve people’s lives,” he said. “It may happen just a little bit at a time.”
 
Grandi: Changing the way people look at and talk about science
GrandiJunior Fiorella Grandi, 20, will travel to Yale University for 11 weeks this summer to participate in the prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP). She will study and research with Joan Steitz, a world-renowned molecular biologist and the first female scientist to work in the laboratory of James Watson, Nobel Prize winner and co-discoverer of the structure of DNA.
An Idaho native, Grandi says her scientific interests are in epigenetics – how a cell changes its identity from, say, a normal cell of a given type to a diseased or even cancerous cell. At Yale, she will help look at how things like viruses coerce cells into allowing the virus to come in and cause an infection.
A double major in biochemistry and genetics, Grandi is a member of SMB’s STARS program. She has published a first-author manuscript in molecular biology and evolution from her work in WSU assistant professor Wenfeng An’s laboratory. In summer 2012 she attended the highly competitive Jackson Laboratories Summer Research Program in Bar Harbor, Maine.
She credits two people with helping her toward a career. Idaho Falls High School history teacher James Francis helped her understand how to dissect problems and apply critical thinking. And though she first wanted to be an attorney – “to work for social justice; something I am still very passionate about” - she says it was her father who urged her to take a cell biology class in high school.
 
“I was hooked,” Grandi said. “I realized right then I wanted to be a scientist and teach and conduct research for the rest of my life.
“My ideal job (would be) at a state institution like WSU, in part because of the funding challenges science faces and knowing I can reach so many more people in an environment like this,” she said.
“I want to change the way people look at and talk about science,” she said. “I’d love to teach a class like, ‘Science for Non-Scientists,’ so people no longer fear science or scientists and what we do.”

For more information on the Goldwater and other distinguished scholarship such as the Boren, Fulbright, Gilman, Truman and Udall, visit WSU’s Distinguished Scholarship Program website at http://universitycollege.wsu.edu/units/distinguishedscholarshipadvising/

 
 
Contacts:
Mary Sanchez Lanier, University College at WSU, 509-335-2320, sanchez@wsu.edu
Beverly Makhani, Director of Communications, University College and Honors College at WSU, 509-335-6679, makhani@wsu.edu