Washington State University genetics and cell biology major Sean Thompson has been awarded the prestigious national Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship available to those intending to pursue careers in math, the natural sciences, or engineering.

The award will contribute $7,500 toward educational expenses, such as tuition and fees, for both the junior and senior years of the Woodinville, Washington sophomore. The purpose of the Goldwater awards is to ensure that the U.S. “has the scientific talent it needs to maintain its global competitiveness and security.”

“I didn’t expect to receive the Goldwater, but I’m very honored by it,” said Thompson. “In a way, it recognizes all the hard work and sacrifices I’ve made for my education to get to this point. It also validates all of the efforts by my professors to help me as a young researcher and by those who helped me through the rigorous application process for the award. I couldn’t have done it without them.”

Tough competition

“Though Sean faced a strong field of competitors, his application was full of exceptional achievements and the university was honored to endorse him to the Goldwater Foundation,” said April Seehafer, director of the Distinguished Scholarships Program. It is part of the Division of Academic Engagement and Student Achievement. Seehafer and select faculty members mentor students seeking elite awards.

Nominations from 461 academic institutions put 1,343 students in the applicant pool for 2020 Goldwater Scholarships. A total of 396 awards were given to students across the U.S.  Thompson is one of eight new Goldwater Scholars attending college in Washington; in neighboring states, there are five new scholars in Montana as well as Oregon, and two in Idaho—both at the University of Idaho eight miles east of WSU.

Thompson’s award brings WSU’s total Goldwater recipients to 42 since the first in 1990—four years after the award was established by the U.S. Congress. The Goldwater is considered the premier undergraduate award presented to future junior and senior STEM students.

“Sean, like all of WSU’s Goldwater awardees, is highly motivated to make a difference in the lives of others,” said Mary Sanchez Lanier, assistant vice provost and WSU’s faculty liaison to the Goldwater Foundation. “He is dedicated to science and to research and has already made significant contributions to the investigations of the faculty who mentor him.”

Part of the WSU legacy

Closeup of Sean Thompson
Sean Thompson

Even before talking about his new award or his research, Thompson explains proudly why he choose to attend WSU.

“I’m a third generation Coug!,” he said. He followed in the footsteps of his maternal grandfather, Harold Harris, who studied mechanical engineering in the 1950s, and his mom, Cary (’84 Nursing), who today works as a school nurse. She accompanied Thompson, then a high schooler, on a campus visit to Pullman; he said he was immediately sold on the school with its undergraduate research possibilities and friendly, informative faculty members. When he decided on WSU, he joined the WSU Honors College and appreciates the “small classes, challenging discussions, and engaging presentations.”

Thompson said, “There’s just a certain character that all Cougs have. We’re a great community and we’re genuine and sincere and willing to help—more than people I’ve ever met from anywhere else. I’m really proud to be part of this university.”

His father, Patrick, went to Seattle University, and his twin brother, Matthew, is studying chemical engineering at Montana State and is also interested in nanotechnology and materials science. The twins both conduct undergraduate research, seek intellectual challenges, and plan to devote their careers to benefitting people, Thompson said.

“After we graduate, my brother wants to research materials science and nanotechnology for defense applications. I will earn my Ph.D. in Molecular Biosciences with a specialization in genetics from WSU and continue to research tissue and limb regeneration to benefit people such as amputees and burn victims.”

Research as a WSU STARS student

Since his freshman year, Thompson has been part of the Students Targeted toward Advanced Research Studies (STARS) program in the School of Molecular Biosciences (SMB), a “fast-track-BS-to-Ph.D.” program for exceptional life science students.

Science has been a passion for Thompson since he found his niche in advanced placement biology at Woodinville High School taught by Kathleen Pavlich.

“She gave me my first formal exposure to biology, and I credit her for inspiring me to pursue a research career and igniting my curiosity for genetics.”

At WSU, Thompson has spent much time as a freshman and sophomore in the lab of Ryan Driskell, SMB assistant professor who investigates mechanisms that will induce regeneration in skin wounds utilizing fibroblast lineages. One of Thompson’s tasks in the lab was to help further development of a cost-effective 3D chamber for grafting. A new project that is exciting to Thompson is exploring how different fibroblasts’ DNA architecture regulates their distinct functions during skin formation and embryogenesis.

As his academic and professional career progresses, Thompson plans to continue work with mouse models to study skin regeneration, and with the axolotl, a critically endangered Mexican salamander with the remarkable ability to automatically regrow missing limbs. He intends to become a professor and apply gene editing knowledge and regenerative principles in creative ways to attempt to solve critical human health issues, like large scars and limb amputation.

“I want to help restore people to their pre-injury lives so they can work and live longer in better health.”

Research resilience in the face of COVID-19

Even though in-person classes and lab work have been curtailed at WSU because of COVID-19 considerations, Thompson’s research continues to progress albeit from a distance. Sitting in his family-home bedroom north of Seattle, he uses a bioinformatics software analysis program on his computer to continue crunching data from the Driskell lab. He intends that the data will lead to a paper published in a professional journal.

His plans for summer were also impacted by the world pandemic. Three WSU students were selected this past winter for research internships at German universities (RISE) through the country’s German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). Thompson’s position was cancelled along with those of two other students, Haley Morris and Christi Webster.

Thompson is happy to continue his WSU education but also holds hopes for research in Germany in summer 2021 and a research internship in summer 2022 in Mexico.

“I’m very curious by nature, so research is a good fit for me, and I’m thankful that the opportunities at WSU along with this Goldwater award have made it all possible.”