Elizabeth Mullins, a top science student at Montana State University Billings, was recently awarded a prestigious national science, technology, engineering and math scholarship. For that honor, she’d like to thank her grandfather.

"In his heart, he's a teacher," Mullins said. "He would pull me aside because he saw I was naturally interested in science, and he talked to me about that."

Originally from Oklahoma, she spent part of her childhood living with her grandparents in Massachusetts, where talks with her grandfather inspired her to pursue a career in science.

Through her grandfather's hands-on lessons and guidance, Mullins dreamed of becoming a scientist.

Last week, that dream got a little easier to reach when she was named as one of 283 students nationwide to receive the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, which goes to help students studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

A junior biology major from Talala, Okla., she's also the first MSUB student ever to receive the scholarship and one of just four in Montana to receive it in 2014.

"Being the first Goldwater recipient (from MSUB) is quite remarkable,” Chancellor Rolf Groseth said. “Elizabeth is an outstanding student and her service to MSUB goes far beyond the classroom."

Mullins said she's excited and honored to receive the award and believes it will show others, especially potential graduate schools, that she's motivated and qualified to succeed in her planned career as a biomedical researcher.

"You have to be dedicated," she said. "A Goldwater scholarship, their scholars are just that. They're intelligent, they're dedicated. They believe in what they're doing."

The scholarship, described by MSUB as "the most prestigious and competitive in the country for students" studying in STEM, provides as much as $7,500 annually per recipient for undergraduate educational costs.

Recipients are nominated by faculty members and selected on their academic merit. Mullins has a 3.9 GPA and, after an expected spring 2015 graduation, plans to enroll in a combined master's-doctoral program to pursue biomedical research.

She said she hopes to work on finding treatments for conditions that do not today have cures or treatments.

"My true passion lies in the microscopic world," she said. "... I like cells, I like seeing how they interact."

Mullins' grandfather, whom she described as "a jack of all trades, master of none sort," was, among other things, a Brown-educated engineer who helped stoke Mullins' love of science.

From the time she was a young girl, they'd have discussions about the world around them, and he'd give her little assignments to explore and develop, such as why colors appear the way they do or how plants know to grow upward while their roots grow down into the ground.

She'd come back to him with her findings and theories, and they'd find the answers together.

"In a logical sense, he wanted me to try to put things together to come up with a hypotheses, although I didn't know it was a hypothesis at the time," Mullins said. "I was 6 years old."

Even so, it sparked a curiosity and passion for science that has stuck.

Now 29, Mullins joined the Navy after high school and served for about nine years before enrolling at MSUB. She said she and her husband, a member of the Marines, wanted a place where he could be stationed while she pursued science education, and Billings fit the bill perfectly.

Her current research project at MSUB, funded by a grant from MT-INBRE and the National Institutes of Health, focuses on pathogenic fungi and understanding regulatory pathways which could help create anti-fungal therapies.

Mullins thanked the grantors and her mentors — Dr. Kurt Toenjes, Dr. David Butler, Dr. David Craig and Joy Goffena — for putting her in a position for the honor.

"She is unique,” said Craig, director of MSUB's University Honors Program. “She has mastered the indispensable ingredients of hard work, discipline and dedication and posses the strength of character that, combined with her talent and intelligence, will make for a very distinguished career.”

For Mullins, the scholarship honor reflects a long-standing standard of quality at MSUB. So much so that, given what Mullins described as high-caliber professors dedicated to going beyond the normal classroom duties, she wouldn't leave MSUB for another program if offered.

"This scholarship really signals to the community that MSUB is a top university with top students and has been for a while," Mullins said. "Finally, the university is able to get that public recognition as being an outstanding place to learn."

Other Montana students receiving the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship in 2014 are Katherine Kent, Connor Murnion and McLain Leonard, all students at Montana State University.


Health and medical reporter for The Billings Gazette

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