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,” said McDonnell, a native of Spring Valley who graduated from UW-Eau Claire May 19. “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 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 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 UW-EC,” McDonnell said.
Among the doors that opened for him is the University of California, Berkeley. In the fall, McDonnell will begin his doctoral 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 said. “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 said, 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.
He wound up majoring in chemistry, in part, he said “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 math, 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 said, noting he added math 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 said.
“I chose UW-EC because of its reputation for undergraduate research,” he said. “Coming into college, I knew I wanted to try research. I felt that UW-EC 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 university chemistry professor Stephen Drucker. McDonnell was just a freshman when he began experimental spectroscopy research with Drucker.
The research, which has continued through McDonnell’s college career, has played a significant role in shaping his undergraduate experiences at UW-Eau Claire. His collaborative research with Drucker has prepared him well for his future, McDonnell said.
McDonnell also engaged in research on modelling organic semiconductors with physics professor Paul Thomas.
Thomas and Drucker have been tremendous mentors, McDonnell said.
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 said.
While research has been a big part of his undergraduate career, McDonnell said UW-Eau Claire also has provided him with other opportunities to thrive.
As a McNair scholar and an Honors student, he said he had opportunities to connect with other students who share his interests.