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Chemistry Student Wins Prestigious Goldwater Scholarship

Montclair State University undergraduate Marisa Messina’s research targets breast cancer treatment through enzyme study

Posted in: Homepage News, Research, Science and Technology, University

A female student smiles at a computer in a science lab.
Marisa Messina, a junior Chemistry major, is the first student in Montclair’s history to win the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship.

A Montclair State University undergraduate was named a 2023 Goldwater Scholar, becoming the first student in University history to earn this prestigious award. Junior Chemistry major Marisa Messina’s research focuses on an enzyme that could one day be used to target breast cancer treatments.

The Barry Goldwater Scholarship is one of the most impressive national undergraduate scholarships in the natural sciences, engineering and mathematics, says Computer Science Professor Stefan Robila, the campus representative for the Goldwater Scholarship. It is awarded to students who plan to conduct research within their field after graduation, and eventually become experts in that field. Messina plans to pursue a doctorate in Medicinal Chemistry with a long-term goal of joining a pharmaceutical research team with potential to cure disease.

“This extraordinary honor confirms the high quality of Marisa’s work,“ says Robila. “She demonstrates a clear plan for a research path strongly anchored in her previous work and personal experiences and a passion for discovery and innovation.”

A student and a professor look at a computer screen in a science lab.
Marisa Messina works in the lab with her mentor, Associate Biochemistry Professor Jaclyn Catalano. They are researching an enzyme that could be key to improving the effectiveness of breast cancer treatments.

As a nationally designated R2 research university, Montclair creates multiple opportunities for students to conduct research alongside faculty. For Messina, that research began the summer of her freshman year when she joined the biochem lab of Associate Biochemistry Professor Jaclyn Catalano and began assisting in researching an enzyme that is overexposed in breast cancer cells. The team is creating a model to better understand how the enzyme could potentially be used as a drug target, Catalano says.

“The work is rewarding,” says Messina, who was inspired by a high school Chemistry teacher in her hometown of Riverdale, New Jersey, to pursue science in college. “The more chemistry classes I take, the more interested I am.”

In the lab, Messina saw the pieces of the research come together, acquiring both wet lab and computation skills that allowed her to grow her research independently, work that Catalano recognized as exceptional. “Marisa is able to perceive the next steps and troubleshoot any experiment,” Catalano says. “She’s a great student in the lab and she’s fully capable of collecting data that is publication quality. She has also trained other students to do the same.”

Three people pose in a science lab.
Marisa Messina, seated, with her mentor Associate Biochemistry Professor Jacklyn Catalano and Computer Science Professor Stefan Robila in the lab.

Those attributes contributed to her application being put forward with the University’s Prestigious Scholarships Committee and the Barry Goldwater Scholarship review team. “In my own exchanges with Marisa, I noted a highly professional individual, responsive and focused, and one of the top undergraduates I met in the last two decades,” Robila says.

The Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Program was created in 1986 to honor Senator Barry Goldwater, who served in the Army Air Force and the Air Force Reserve before being elected to Congress. This year, the award went to 413 scholars throughout the United States, with 10 scholars at New Jersey universities – four at Princeton, three at Rutgers, and one each at Montclair, Rowan and NJIT.

“Having one of our Chemistry students honored as a Goldwater Scholar is a testament to how our program brings out the best in our students and the impact of quality faculty mentorship. Ms. Messina is well prepared to join the other Goldwater Scholarship winners to be the next generation of scientific leaders,” says College of Science and Mathematics Dean Lora Billings.

Over its 30-year history, Goldwater Scholarship winners have gone on to win other prestigious awards like the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Fellowship, Rhodes Scholarship, Churchill Scholarship and the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship. Today, Goldwater alumni can be found conducting research that finds cures for diseases and teaching future generations of scientists, mathematicians and engineers.

Messina says the award is both a testament to “all of the work I put into my research paying off” and a confidence booster – “proving to myself that I could one day become a successful researcher.”

Story by Staff Writer Marilyn Joyce Lehren. Photos by University Photographer Mike Peters.

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