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UW college of engineering grad and Erroll B. Davis Award winner pursuing PhD in neuroscience

Maura McDonagh

For recent UW graduate Maura McDonagh, a fascination in science does not end the day you receive your undergraduate diploma.

McDonagh, who majored in biomedical engineering and communication arts, is so interested in science and education that she is taking it to the next level: pursuing a PhD. She will be the first in her family to do so.

Her interest in STEM started from a young age. McDonagh, 23, originally from Chicago, naturally gravitated toward science and biology and was even on the robotics team in her high school.

“I love being able to tackle a problem from many different angles and working with other people,” she tells Madison365. “A lot of my time in undergrad I worked in a stem cell lab and I really like being able to chase the answers to things. I really like designing experiments and knowing how to answer one biological question with one particular asset.”

With her interest in biology and engineering, she decided to go into the biomedical engineering program at UW, which applies engineering concepts and designs to medicine and biology for healthcare. While there, McDonagh focused on cell and tissue engineering and specifically, stem cell engineering.

“I’m really focused on stem cell engineering and understanding how we can use our body’s own natural cells and support them for either regenerative medicine, like stem cell therapy, or just creating a better understanding of how our bodies work.”

During her undergraduate career, McDonagh had the opportunity to work under chemical and biological engineering professor Eric V. Shusta. His lab, which had a stem cell-based model of the blood-brain barrier, gave her the opportunity to study how the blood-brain barrier reacted when infected with pathogens that caused bacterial meningitis. 

Specifically, McDonagh worked alongside a postdoctoral fellow to study Group B streptococcus, a pathogen that can cause meningitis in babies.

“It’s really important to understand what exactly the bacteria are doing to the cells or what is the cell’s response to the bacteria that is allowing it to create such devastating effects,” she says.

While McDonagh was active in her classes, she was even more involved outside of them.

McDonagh worked on campus during her time at UW, first at the dining hall, then as an administrative assistant at the Diversity Affairs Office in the College of Engineering. She then spent her last three years on campus working as a tutor for the Undergraduate Learning Center, which supports engineering students in their first- and second-year courses.

Outside of work, McDonagh was also president for two student organizations, one being BundleUp, which provides clothing and personal hygiene products to homeless individuals. The other was the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE). 

SHPE focuses on outreach, as well as academic and professional development for Hispanic students in STEM. As president, McDonagh, who is half-Mexican and half-Irish, focused primarily on setting the organization up to do an outreach podcast in hopes of encouraging more Latinx students to consider STEM as an option for higher education.

“We’re going to be interviewing current STEM students, as well as current STEM professionals, about their experiences,” she says. “I went into engineering thinking I would be doing a lot of math and a lot of sciences. Yeah, that’s part of it. But what is it [like] day to day? What possible career options do you have with that degree? I feel like sometimes [students think] STEM isn’t for [them]. But there are so many opportunities and there’re so many people that come from so many different places, so why not?”

As a white-passing Latina, McDonagh felt like she was put in an interesting and somewhat challenging position in STEM.

“I experienced a lot of white privilege, I’m very white-passing,” she says. “The students that I tutored or my fellow classmates would often not know that I was Latina until I called my grandma or they heard someone pronounce my name correctly. It can be really hard. The expectation for most engineering classes is you walk in and you’re just a student. But I think that a lot of professors and fellow students don’t realize that you bring in your culture, you bring in your past history. My visibility as a woman of color has been [minimal] but I found a lot of support in the Diversity Affairs Office.”

McDonagh found her community through SHPE, which is based in the Diversity Affairs Office.

“Once I found my community it became a lot better. Initially, I didn’t know how to hold my identities as a woman of color and my Mexican American heritage with my engineering student identity. It seemed like I could only be one or the other. Ultimately, over time, I was able to integrate them primarily through SHPE.”

The hard work she put into her college career paid off in October, when she won the 2019 Alliant Energy/Erroll B. Davis Award for her academic achievement and community service. The award is given to engineering and business students from underrepresented groups.

Winning the award was an honor, she says.

“This [was] my fifth year of undergrad and working in the Diversity Affairs Office I had known a lot of former students who received the award,” she said. “They had been the people who would help me out so it was really an honor to be awarded that among people that I considered so highly.”

Now, McDonagh is preparing to start her journey into graduate school, something she wasn’t sure she was ready for at first.

“I decided in October 2019 and the first applications were due November 2019,” she says. “It was always something I considered but I hadn’t even taken the GRE. I was thinking of taking a gap year to figure out what I wanted to do. I just had this feeling like I wasn’t ready but my advisors were like ‘you’re ready, you can do this if you want to go for it’.”

And she did. McDonagh will be attending the University of California-Berkeley in the fall of 2020. There, she will be pursuing a Ph.D. in neuroscience. During her first year, she will be doing rotationals to find the right fit for her research interests, which include cell and molecular neuroscience, specifically, neurodegenerative diseases.

“I’ve learned so many tools and I’m really excited to bring that together and find a way to really make a story and contribute my own little piece of the puzzle to the neuroscience world. Being able to contribute to that larger body of biomedical science is the most enticing aspect for me.”

She hopes her work will eventually lead to being a professor at a research institution, one like UW.

“I love research. I love asking questions and finding answers to them how long and circuitous the route might be. But I also love working with students and sharing my excitement with things,” she says. “And I ultimately hope to incorporate science communication into my career, whether that be as a professor or in some other facet, but I’m really interested in promoting brain health awareness, especially among younger individuals. That’s really going to be like my mission in graduate school and also in life.”