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ASU Dean’s Medalist heads to Harvard

Maddie Howell

Madeleine Howell spring 2020 School of Molecular Sciences Dean's Medalist. Image credit: Mary Zhu

April 17, 2020

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2020 graduates.

Native Arizonan and graduate of Basha High School in Chandler, Arizona, Madeleine Howell is the spring 2020 School of Molecular Sciences Dean’s Medalist, and also the University Outstanding Undergraduate student for the Natural Sciences Division in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

In May, Howell will graduate summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry with minors in materials science and engineering as well as mathematics.

Howell has a plethora of prestigious awards to her name, including the national Goldwater Scholarship and National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. She has been a Barrett, The Honors College student and earned a 4.0 GPA while at ASU.

“Congratulations go to Maddie for so many exemplary undergraduate achievements,” said President’s Professor Ian Gould, interim director of the School of Molecular Sciences. “I am very happy to see her recognized with these outstanding and richly-deserved awards.”

“I was fortunate to have Maddie as a student in three consecutive courses, and she consistently impressed me with her performance and desire to learn as much as possible about the topics being covered,” said Associate Professor Ryan Trovitch, from the School of Molecular Sciences. “Maddie stands out as a once-in-a-decade talent and I believe she will be highly successful in her pursuit of an advanced degree in physical chemistry from Harvard University, and ultimately a career in academia. I can’t wait to see what she will accomplish.”

“I feel honored to have been selected to receive the Dean’s Medal and I am very grateful to the incredible SMS faculty who have taught and mentored me during my time at ASU,” Howell said. “Being recognized in this way has allowed me to reflect on my academic achievements and will provide a source of motivation moving forward.”

“I actually started at ASU as a biomedical engineering freshman. It wasn’t until I started doing research in Assistant Professor Barbara Smith's lab in the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering that I discovered my interest in spectroscopy, and chemistry more broadly, and decided to change my major.”

Howell’s research in the Smith lab focused on developing novel optical feedback systems for navigating patch-clamp electrodes inside the living brain. Patch-clamp electrophysiology is the highest-resolution technique currently available for understanding neuronal dynamics. She also collaborated on a project on detecting circulating ovarian tumor cells, which resulted in a publication in ACS Biomaterials Science and Engineering.

“During her time in the lab, I have gotten to know Maddie as the exceptional student and person that she is,” explained Smith. “Maddie places great effort into firmly understanding the depth underlying her research and academic studies. Her dedication to undergraduate research has been recognized through her receipt of the National Science Foundation funded Research Experience for Undergraduates, Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative (FURI) at ASU, the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship, and most recently, through the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program which will be funding her upcoming PhD position at Harvard University.

“In addition, Maddie embodies the STEM approach and mentality, and aspires to motivate the greater community through her impactful scientific outreach endeavors. We, in the Smith Laboratory, are all extremely proud of Maddie and her exceptional accomplishments! I have no doubt that she will continue to generate a culture of excellence within her scientific pursuits and provide advancement within the field throughout her career.”

After a year of research in the Smith group on noninvasive diagnostic technologies, Howell decided that she wanted to delve into the field of ultrafast spectroscopy and participated in a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates in the lab of Professor Theodore Goodson III at the University of Michigan. That summer, in between her sophomore and junior years, she had the opportunity to characterize candidate materials for organic light emitting diodes using ultrafast and nonlinear spectroscopic techniques.

Indeed, Howell has demonstrated a quite exceptional ability in research settings.

Moreover, Maddie has exhibited devotion to scientific outreach by conducting demonstrations for elementary school students and through her efforts with ASU’s Graduate Partners in Science Education Program.

Question: What sparked your interest in doing research at ASU?

Answer: In high school I took honors science research and we each wrote a white paper and sent it to researchers at local universities. We partnered with a researcher at ASU and carried out what was pretty much a science fair project, which we presented at the Arizona Science and Engineering Fair. That experience in research got me really excited about it and that’s why I sought it out my freshmen year.

Aside from the research opportunities at ASU, what also drew me was being close to home. … I’m a triplet and all three of us are here (at ASU).

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: I actually started at ASU as a biomedical engineering freshman. It wasn’t until I started doing research in assistant professor Barbara Smith’s lab that I discovered my interest in spectroscopy and chemistry more broadly, and decided to change my major.

Question: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

Answer: My adviser, Assistant Professor Barbara Smith, taught me how to ask questions and think critically which has been crucial to my development as a researcher. My chemistry professors, Ryan Trovitch and Scott Sayres, fostered my passion for inorganic and physical chemistry and have been instrumental in my undergraduate training in the classroom and laboratory.

Question: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

Answer: My advice would be to approach school as a means of discovering what you are passionate about and to be fearless in your pursuits inside and outside of the classroom.

Question: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

Answer: My favorite spot to study is the Design Library. It has a very quiet and calming atmosphere.

Question: What are your plans after graduation?

Answer: In the fall, I will start a physical chemistry PhD program in Harvard’s chemistry and chemical biology department. Afterwards, I plan to pursue a post-doctoral position and future research career in academia.

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