Prestigious fellowship opens doors for new grad

| Judy Berthiaume

It turns out that good things do happen after midnight.

Just ask Michael McDonnell, a UW-Eau Claire physics and mathematics major who received a middle-of-the-night email from the National Science Foundation telling him he is among an elite group of students selected to receive a prestigious fellowship that will fund his graduate studies.

“It was about 2 a.m. when I got the email about the NSF fellowship,” says McDonnell, a native of Spring Valley who will graduate from UW-Eau Claire Saturday. “I knew the results were being announced that night so my anticipation kept me awake. When I found out I was accepted, I don’t think I slept for more than a few hours. I was just so elated.”

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master's and doctoral degrees in the United States.

The fellowship program provides three years of financial support within a five-year period, with $34,000 in an annual stipend going to the student and $12,000 cost-of-education allowance to the graduate institution.

McDonnell is among the 2,000 students nationwide receiving the fellowship award through the NSF program. He was selected from more than 12,000 applicants.

“Receiving the NSF fellowship has opened up so many doors regarding graduate school for me, and has made me thankful for the excellent mentors I’ve had at UWEC,” McDonnell says.

Among the doors that opened for him is the University of California, Berkeley.

In the fall, McDonnell will begin his Ph.D. studies in the graduate program in physics at Berkeley.

Only about 40 graduate students from colleges and universities around the world are accepted into the Berkeley graduate physics program each year.

“When I was applying to graduate schools last fall, UC Berkeley was my top choice,” McDonnell says. “So when I found out I was accepted it put so much of my time at UWEC into perspective, and made me appreciate all the opportunities and mentors I've had even more.

“I'm really excited to start next fall. It will be a challenging and new experience in a completely different part of the country.”

Earning a doctorate at Berkeley is the next step in a journey that McDonnell hopes prepares him for a career as a researcher and professor.

While he had no way of knowing that his passion for science would eventually lead him to one of the most prestigious doctoral institutions in the country, McDonnell has known since high school that his future was in the sciences.

“In high school, I had several really great science teachers who got me interested in science,” McDonnell says, noting that UW-Eau Claire was a good fit for him because of its excellent science programs. “Entering college, I had a difficult time deciding between biology, chemistry and physics. They all interested me.

“I ended up choosing to major in chemistry as a compromise for its position as the ‘central science,’ and because I figured the math involved in physics would be way beyond me.”

However, during his sophomore year, he began taking physics classes and realized it was an even better fit.

He also discovered he had a talent for mathematics, which is a critical part of his physics studies.

“I was having a lot of fun in my physics courses so I decided to switch majors,” McDonnell says. “I think what interested me then, and what still interests me, about physics is how you can apply a few basic ideas in physics to so many different areas in science.

“The math didn’t turn out to be so bad either and I ended up adding it as a second major.”

While UW-Eau Claire’s strong science programs are important to him, it was the university’s commitment to undergraduate research that convinced him to become a Blugold, McDonnell says.

“I chose UWEC because of its reputation for undergraduate research,” McDonnell says. “Coming into college, I knew I wanted to try research. I felt that UWEC would allow me to experience research in a way that would allow me to meaningfully contribute to a project, rather than simply do the grunt work of graduate students.”

Once at UW-Eau Claire, he quickly found the challenging and meaningful research he was looking for, as well as a research mentor in Dr. Stephen Drucker, professor of chemistry.

McDonnell was just a freshman when he began experimental spectroscopy research with Drucker.

The research, which has continued throughout McDonnell’s college career, has played a significant role in shaping his undergraduate experiences at UW-Eau Claire.

His collaborative research with Drucker also has prepared him well for his future, McDonnell says.

“My research with Dr. Drucker has strong elements of physics in it, and has given me exposure to many of the tools that are commonly found in graduate-level physics labs,” McDonnell says. “I’ve continued my research with Dr. Drucker for more than four years. He has been a great mentor and has really influenced my decision to pursue a graduate degree.”

While continuing his research with Drucker, McDonnell also has engaged in research on modelling organic semiconductors with Dr. Paul Thomas, professor of physics.

Thomas and Drucker have been tremendous mentors, McDonnell says, noting that both excel as teachers as well as researchers.

In addition, McDonnell had an opportunity to participate in international research in Germany.

Last summer, he worked at the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics in Garching, Germany, where he was part of a hydrogen spectroscopy team.

“The experience of working at one of the top physics research centers in the world with so many excellent physicists was humbling and motivating,” McDonnell says. “The experience really confirmed my desire to pursue a Ph.D. in physics.”

While research has been a big part of his undergraduate career, McDonnell says UW-Eau Claire also has provided him with other opportunities to thrive.

As a McNair scholar and an Honors student, McDonnell says he had opportunities to connect with other students who share his interests.

Those experiences and connections also are shaping how he thinks about his future, McDonnell says.

“My experiences tutoring physics, being an Honors mentor and co-teaching an Honors 100 class made me want to pursue a career as a professor, where I can both do research and teach,” McDonnell says. “My long-term goal is to continue doing research and teach physics as a professor.”

Photo caption: Michael McDonnell recently learned he has received a prestigious National Science Foundation fellowship, which will support his graduate studies.