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Alum wins Presidential award for science
(April 19, 1999)

An alumna who was "turned on" to science during her sophomore year at UConn has won a 1998 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

Gina MacDonald,'89, now an assistant professor at James Madison University in Virginia, was selected for her outstanding contributions to understanding the biophysical and biochemical bases of DNA repair and recombination, and for involving undergraduates and science teachers in this research. She is the recipient of one of 20 awards made this year to National Science Foundation-supported researchers.

"Research is the only thing that tells you whether you should go to graduate school or not. It's the 'fun-est' part of doing science."

Gina MacDonald, '89
Presidential Award-Winner

The award was established in 1996 to recognize some of the nation's finest scientists and engineers and maintain U.S. leadership across the frontiers of scientific research into the 21st century. It is the highest honor bestowed by the federal government on outstanding scientists and engineers who are in the early stages of establishing independent research careers. The award winners, announced in February, will receive $500,000 over five years to further their research and educational activities.

"These are the 'Golden Globe Awards' for the Albert Einsteins and Marie Curies of tomorrow - our nation's most promising scientist and engineering educators," said NSF director Rita Colwell in a press release.

The NSF selects its nominees for the award from a pool of its most meritorious CAREER award-winners. The CAREER award supports exceptionally promising junior faculty nationwide who are committed to the integration of research and education. MacDonald received a CAREER award last year.

An honors student at UConn during the late 1980s, MacDonald originally intended to major in psychology or sociology. In her sophomore year, after attending an honors seminar by Todd Schuster, a now retired professor of molecular and cell biology, describing his work, she decided to find out more about biophysics, an interdisciplinary field combining biology, physics, biological chemistry and physical chemistry.

"Professor Schuster was far and away the most influential professor for me," she says.

MacDonald worked in Schuster's lab for two years on his study of the tobacco mosaic virus. As a University Scholar, she also was able to design a program that fit her particular interests, including a research project of her own.

Another important role model for her was Judith Kelly, a professor of molecular and cell biology, in whose lab she grew crystals. "I talked to her on a day-to-day basis and she always answered my questions," says MacDonald.

She says the research experience shaped her career. "Research is the only thing that tells you whether you should go to graduate school or not. It's the 'fun-est' part of doing science," she says. "It would be nice if it was essential for everybody to do research before they graduated. It's certainly critical in turning students on to science."

MacDonald is now conducting research on a protein - known as RecA - that is involved in DNA repair, using infrared spectroscopy to study relationships between the protein's structure and function. She teaches classes in chemistry and biochemistry at James Madison University, an undergraduate institution. As there are no graduate students, all her research is conducted with undergraduates. She also works with K-12 science teachers during the summer.

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu