Ball State senior biology major receives National Science Foundation research fellowship

Topics: College of Sciences and Humanities, Honors College

March 31, 2017

Ellen Wagner

Photo by Don Rogers

Senior Ellen Wagner, Ball State’s third student to receive a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, has spent time studying Candida albicans, a pathogenic yeast. Wagner said research in the lab is “calming and relaxing” work. “I enjoy trying to answer questions about the bacteria. It’s like a puzzle I’m trying to solve.”

The same curiosity that fuels her research in the biology labs at Ball State led senior Ellen Wagner to apply for a 2017 National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship.

This month she became one of only 2,000 STEM students nationwide—and the third student in Ball State history—to receive the prestigious award, which provides her with a three-year, annual award of $46,000 for tuition, fees, and living expenses, along with professional development and international research opportunities.

“Getting this fellowship is huge,” said Wagner, an Honors College student whose biology major is concentrated in microbiology and genetics. “The NSF funds so much national research and I know it has the potential to open a lot of doors for me.”

Ellen Wagner  and John McKillip

Photo by Don Rogers

One of Wagner’s mentors has been her professor Doug Bernstein. The assistant professor of biology said of his student: “I want her to know her contributions to the lab will be felt by many undergraduate and graduate students in the years to come.”

Upon graduating in May, Wagner, a native of West Chester, Ohio, will attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she plans to study cell and molecular biology. She credits the research opportunities she had during her undergraduate career at Ball State for helping her stand out from the 13,000 students who applied for one of the NSF fellowships.

“The best part about coming here is how involved I’ve been with my professors, working with them one-on-one in the labs. Had I gone someplace else, I’m not sure I could say the same.”

Her research at Ball State included helping John McKillip, associate professor of biology, with assessing the ability of an unusual spore-forming bacteria to produce biofilms that can hamper the hygiene and quality control of dairy equipment. She also worked with Doug Bernstein, assistant professor of biology, studying Candida albicans, a pathogenic yeast, trying to answer questions about the basic biology of its RNA. Along with DNA and proteins, RNA is among the three major biological macromolecules essential for all life forms, according to the RNA Society, a national research organization.

“The best part about coming here is how involved I’ve been with my professors, working with them one-on-one in the labs. Had I gone someplace else, I’m not sure I could say the same.”

— Ellen Wagner
senior biology major

McKillip described Wagner as a joy to have in the lab. “Ellen has a tangible curiosity about all aspects of science. I expect she’ll soak up the challenges of her doctoral program like a sponge.”

In addition to Wagner’s work at Ball State, a 2016 summer research internship at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she also studied Candida albicans, proved crucial in bestowing the confidence she needed to pursue research as a career. “It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, seeing what cutting-edge research looks like while being surrounded by other people my age who shared the same ambitions.”

But she might never have applied for the NSF fellowship without the guidance of Barb Stedman, Ball State’s director of national and international scholarships.

Stedman coached Wagner through the months she spent crafting the documents required for the fellowship application, including a research proposal and personal statement. “She was so encouraging. I feel lucky to have had her on my side.”

As a newly-minted research fellow, Wagner said she’s open to a career in the research industry but hopes to return to academia as a professor who will oversee her own students in the lab.

Her encouragement to her fellow Ball State students: Don’t be afraid to talk to your professors.

“It’s easy to be intimidated by them,” Wagner said, “but if you take the time, you’ll find out they really care and are here to help you. I’m proof of that.”

biology major Ellen Wagner

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