By Taylor Hornney (’16)
SPOKANE, Wash. – Nina Montoya, a junior biology major at Gonzaga University, takes a giant step toward her goal of making a difference for others through medical research with a paid internship this summer in the New York University Medical School laboratory of Dr. Dan Littman, a physician and expert in immunology and microbiology.
Montoya is one of 78 students nationwide chosen for the Exceptional Research Opportunities Program, funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The fifth Gonzaga student selected for the program since 2010, Montoya plans to attend graduate school to pursue a career helping to unlock medical mysteries through research.
Montoya said Dr. Littman’s lab was her top choice when she applied to become an HHMI scholar in part because of her fascination with bacteria. Of course, spending the summer in Manhattan appeals to her as well.
“I’m really excited to experience research in a bigger research oriented environment,” said Montoya. “I’m going to be working at a medical school where they’re primarily focused on that kind of work.”
Montoya and postdoctoral scholar Wendy Huang will assist Dr. Littman in his research involving the pathways that trigger cell differentiation in the immune system. Montoya credits Gonzaga’s extensive research offerings for preparing her for this opportunity. As a sophomore, she took part in the Phage Genomics program, a yearlong research experience that allowed her to travel to Washington D.C. to present her work. Last summer, she worked in the lab of biology Lecturer Carla Bonilla.
Montoya, whose father is a physician, says she has always had a keen interest in science. At Amy Biehl High School in Albuquerque, N.M., a counselor suggested she pursue her talents in the humanities. However, her love for science prevailed.
“She really likes to figure things out and wants to improve society through research,” said Nancy Staub, professor of biology at Gonzaga. “She is a very dynamic and bright young scientist.”
Montoya will advance her research skills through the highly selective program and position her optimally for graduate school, Professor Staub said. With a Gonzaga biology degree and her research experience, Staub says Montoya will have her choice of the nation’s best graduate programs.
For Montoya, the award affirms her academic pursuits and her future plans.
“To have the Howard Hughes Medical Institute give you an opportunity to do something like this, just really reminds me that I’m doing the right thing and someone else sees that, too,” Montoya said. “It’s going to be awesome; I’m excited.”
The growing Gonzaga HHMI alumni legacy includes scholars Danielle Hyatt (’14), Nicolas Contreras (’12), Fernando Rodriquez Perez (’11) and Isaac Strong (’10) – all of whom received summer research opportunities with some of the world’s top researchers.
Two years ago, Gonzaga received a $1.2 million HHMI grant allowing its science faculty to better develop students as socially responsible leaders in science, research, and medicine. It’s part of more than $50 million HHMI awarded to 47 small colleges and universities, and was Gonzaga’s second major HHMI grant. In 2008, Gonzaga was among 48 of the nation’s best undergraduate schools to share $60 million from HHMI to help usher in a new era of science education in the United States.