WCU lands second consecutive Howard Hughes award winner

Junior Matthew McDonough (right) works in the lab with senior Kasie Stephens. McDonough recently became the second consecutive WCU student to be chosen to participate in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Exceptional Research Opportunities Program.

Matthew McDonough didn’t know much about the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Exceptional Research Opportunities Program until he learned that a couple of his Western Carolina University instructors nominated him to participate.

So the junior from Asheville applied and was surprised to be chosen to participate in the program that provides summer research experiences in HHMI scientists’ laboratories across the country to undergraduate students from disadvantaged backgrounds and groups underrepresented in the sciences.

“To be selected is quite an honor,” said McDonough, a biology major with concentration in molecular biology and a minor in chemistry.

According to biology instructor Maria Gainey, McDonough was an excellent student, but one of her quieter ones while taking the “Phage Hunters” class last year. But once the lessons shifted toward genomics last spring, Gainey noticed that McDonough really excelled. “He mastered (the tools we had) very quickly and kind of took off with the little bit of introduction of everything we gave him. I could tell he was enjoying that,” Gainey said.

Jamie Wallen, assistant professor of biochemistry, noticed it as well. Wallen taught the class along with Gainey and adjunct biology professor Megan Eckhardt. The class is funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute as part of its program SEA-Phages, or Science Education Alliance – Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics Evolutionary and Science.

Wallen and Gainey were in agreement when it came to nominating someone for EXROP. It’s the second year in a row a WCU student was chosen. Last year, now-senior Alma Plaza-Rodriguez spent the summer doing research at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.

“It’s exciting for us,” Gainey said. “The more experiences like this that (the students) can have, especially early on, I think the success just kind of builds. For Alma, it opened up a lot of doors. She’s getting academically recruited by some schools for graduate school, which is great. If Matthew continues to be interested in that path, I would expect the same thing for him. When they do start graduate school, they’re going to be a leg up on the competition.”

McDonough said it was around the eighth grade that he realized science was the path he wanted to take. While he doesn’t have a specific area he wants to focus on, McDonough said working in the lab with bacteria and viruses “is really fascinating to me.”

While applying, McDonough was given a list of HHMI participating scientists along with their current projects. He chose the five projects he is most interested in working on this summer and is waiting to see where he will be placed.

“Doing research of this type is what I want to do for the rest of my life,” McDonough said. “I’m just kind of getting more into it, and working one-on-one with a prominent scientist is what I hope to get out of (this experience).”

To have a second student chosen for EXROP in the two years WCU has been involved with SEA-Phages shows that the university is on HHMI’s radar, Wallen said.

“We’ve got a great relationship with a lot of faculty that are part of the HHMI SEA-Phages program,” Wallen said. “This is only strengthening that, sending quality students their way. I think it’s a great impact to build this relationship that we have with HHMI right now. We want to run the SEA-Phages program for years. We want to keep sending Western students that way.”

McDonough will spend 10 weeks of full-time research with his assigned scientist. In addition to conducting research, he will attend two meetings at HHMI’s headquarters in Chevy Chase, Maryland, to present his research in a poster session.

Because of WCU’s participation in SEA-Phages, the university is allowed to nominate two students each year for EXROP. Students interested in being nominated for the program during then next applications (fall 2017) should contact Wallen at jamiewallen@wcu.edu, or Gainey at mdgainey@wcu.edu.