Bridgett McNulty grew up as a rodeo barrel racer, but to pay her way through college she was willing to sell her horses and work 40 hours a week.
Now the 21-year-old Montana State University graduate has won a prestigious $30,000 fellowship from the National Institutes of Health to do scientific research.
"It's a real confidence boost," McNulty said.
She is one of just 10 students out of hundreds of applicants chosen for the fellowship, which will fund a year of research, with an option to continue for a second year, at NIH in Bethesda, Md.
McNulty graduated from MSU this spring with a bachelor's degree a double major in biochemistry and cell biology/neuroscience.
In her application essays, McNulty wrote that researchers must work incredibly hard, often for a tiny reward or for no reward at all. In fact, she wrote, many times, researchers won't succeed in finding what they want.
"A lot of students don't know how to fail. They get frustrated," McNulty said. "I made sure to emphasize that I can get bucked off the horse, repeatedly, and get back up again."
A former barrel rodeo racer, she grew up in Lodge Grass and Great Falls, where she graduated from C. M. Russell High School. Her parents, both teachers, taught her the value of hard work and strength in the face of adversity, said McNulty, who is part Chippewa Cree.
"We were poor, but very educated," McNulty said. "We lived paycheck to paycheck in a trailer with dollar-store Christmases. But I wouldn't trade it for anything."
She enrolled at MSU primarily because of its affordability.
"It was a money issue," she said. "I also looked at going to (the University of Washington) and UCLA, but I couldn't afford either of them."
McNulty sold the four horses that she rode throughout high school to help pay for her freshman year of college. She said it was a sacrifice that came with a certain amount of sadness, but was a good investment.
"I'll probably have horses again someday," she said.
McNulty said she realized as soon as she got to campus that MSU offers great opportunities, faculty support and invaluable experience.
"I wouldn't have been able to do research as a freshman at UW or UCLA," McNulty said. "I was able to engage in research at a very early age, and I continue to engage in research. Ultimately, this was the best school I could have gone to."
McNulty had to work hard to pay for MSU. She held several different jobs, often working 40 or more hours a week. She also took out loans and received financial aid from Montana INBRE, the Undergraduate Scholars Program at MSU, the Hughes Undergraduate Biology Program at MSU and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
"She is very hard-working, diligent and very motivated," said Roger Bradley, a cell biology and neuroscience professor and McNulty's adviser. "She has overcome a couple of different obstacles (in her research) because of that."
Bradley knows of only one other MSU student who has previously received the NIH fellowship.
"It really sets her on a track to succeed in doing research in the future," Bradley said. "She's going to be working with top-notch NIH scientists."
Starting in August, she will work in an NIH researcher's laboratory, studying the molecular and cellular factors in the development of the inner ear. When development occurs incorrectly, it can result in a loss of hearing, which often leads to deafness. This type of hearing loss is relatively common.
McNulty also hopes that the NIH fellowship will improve her chances of getting into a good medical school. She would like to pursue clinical research.
"I like to be challenged, and I think medical school will push me to my very limit," McNulty said.
Eventually, McNulty would like to return to Montana to work on the Crow Reservation.
"That is where I grew up. I think going back is required of me," she said.
McNulty says she has witnessed firsthand how ill-equipped many reservation medical facilities are.
"After my friend broke her arm barrel racing, I visited doctor's offices that didn't have up-to-date equipment," McNulty said. "The X-ray machines were 50 years old. I'd like to address that."
For now, though, McNulty plans to focus on her research at NIH.
"This is going to be a challenge for me," she said, "but I'm ready for it."