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Biology student receives prestigious award from Howard Hughes Medical Institute

New Mexico State University biology student Rachel Johnston was selected as one of five individuals to receive a 2010 Gilliam Fellowship for Advanced Study from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Rachel Johnston, an NMSU biology student, was selected as one of the five recipients for a 2010 Gilliam Fellowship for Advanced Study from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. (Photo by Darren Phillips)

The Silver City native is the first student from NMSU to be honored with the esteemed award, which was announced Tuesday, March 9. Johnston joins the ranks of four other individuals from Minnesota, San Diego, Chicago and Dallas. Each Gilliam fellow receives $44,000 in graduate school support annually for up to five years to help move them toward a career in science research and teaching.

"The entire Department of Biology speaks with one voice in congratulating Rachel for receiving a Gilliam Fellowship," said Marvin Bernstein, biology department head. "Winning this award in national competition is a well-deserved recognition of Ms. Johnston's hard work, dedication and achievements."

An amateur fish breeder when she was young, Johnston's curiosity in selecting for specific traits and understanding of how to breed guppies in a methodical way helped to prepare her for the scientific research she would do in college. In her sophomore year, Johnston did genetics research on the development of fruit fly eyes with NMSU professor Jennifer Curtiss.

"When I began doing research in Dr. Curtiss's lab, I realized that research was what I wanted to do for a career," Johnston said.

Johnston, who graduates in May, spent the summer after her junior year working in HHMI professor Utpal Banerjee's lab at the University of California, Los Angeles through HHMI's Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP).

EXROP is open to high-achieving undergraduate students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds or groups traditionally underrepresented in the sciences. Colleges and universities that receive HHMI education grants nominate the students. Alumni of EXROP are eligible to apply for Gilliam fellowships. The five new Gilliam fellows were chosen from 26 applicants.

"Her success provides one example of how participation in scientific research in the biology department at NMSU makes our undergraduates competitive for prestigious fellowships and for acceptance to the top graduate programs in the country," Bernstein said.

In graduate school, Johnston hopes to pursue her interest in science while continuing to help others.

"I think as a professor I'd be able to work with students and be a good mentor," Johnston said. "Challenges always come up, but as long you keep focused on your goals and work toward them, you can overcome any challenges that you might face."

Johnston excelled in college as a President's Associates Scholar, the university's top undergraduate scholarship. As a recipient of the Michele and Gary Warner Memorial President's Associates Scholarship, she received the support she needed for the building blocks of educational excellence.

HHMI established the fellowships in 2004 in honor of the late James H. Gilliam Jr., a charter trustee of the Institute who spent his life nurturing excellence and diversity in education and science.

For more information on HHMI or on the Gilliam Fellowship Award for Advanced Study, visit www.hhmi.org.