May 02, 2017, BY Matt Hughes

Lisa Francomacaro
Lisa Francomacaro ’18 is one of two Bucknell juniors to win 2017 Goldwater Scholarships. Photo by Emily Paine, Division of Communications

It seems fitting that Lisa Francomacaro '18 and Mae Lacey '18 met during their first year in Bucknell University's Discovery Residential College. Both students recently learned that they'd earned scholarships from the Barry Goldwater Scholarship & Excellence in Education Foundation, one of the highest honors an undergraduate scientist can attain, and it was a journey of discovery that brought each this mark of distinction.

Established by Congress in honor of the longtime senator from Arizona, the Goldwater Foundation provides scholarships of up to $7,500 for college sophomores and juniors who intend to pursue research careers in those fields. Universities may nominate no more than four students for the approximately 300 awards bestowed annually, making the selection process exceedingly competitive. A third Bucknell student, physics major Joshua Hellerick '18, who is studying abroad in Germany this semester, was recognized with an honorable mention this year.

The Thrill of Discovery
Raised in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains region, Lacey said she wanted her education to build on a love of the natural world she's had since childhood, but that she came to Bucknell with "a very animal‑centric" idea of what that meant.

"I was debating being a veterinarian," said Lacey, an animal behavior major. "But then I ended up in [Professor Chris Martine's] first‑year seminar, World of Treasures, and that was all about species discovery. I was really fascinated."

Lacey did research in the botany laboratory of Professor Chris Martine. Photo by Brett Simpson

Lacey joined Martine's botany lab as a student researcher the next semester, and since then has nurtured a passion for plants that culminated this May. That's when she, Martine and postdoctoral fellow Jason Cantley published a description of a new species of plant that they collected during a research expedition to Australia. Lacey's fascination with species discovery had led her to discovering a species of her own.

"It was a really great experience," Lacey said of the expedition last summer to Limmen National Park, a remote area of the Northern Territory that was recently marked for preservation by the Australian government. "It was three weeks in the field. We had a truck that we took out there and had all of our gear with us, camping every night."

"In looking for this one type of plant, I was paying attention to every single plant all around me," she continued. "It made us feel like we weren't just discovering this one species. We were discovering this whole new place."

Lacey, left, with Postdoctoral Fellow Jason Cantley in western Australia last summer. Photo by Professor Chris Martine

It was Martine who nominated Lacey for the Goldwater scholarship. Professors Morgan Benowitz-Fredericks, biology, and Peter Judge, psychology and animal behavior, also wrote in support of Lacey's application.

"The Goldwater acknowledges undergraduates who have done outstanding work that makes them stand above the rest," Martine said. "It's not only the fact that Mae got the opportunity to do the things she's done, but that she has embraced it, and that she has been able to take things on independently, meticulously and with a real sense of curiosity. One of the things we hope to find in all of our students is that they have this innate curiosity to just want to know why things are the way they are. Mae's got that."

This summer, Lacey will join Benowitz-Frederick on another research expedition, this one to observe seabirds in Alaska.

The Intersection of Science and Health Care
Francomacaro likewise came to Bucknell with a single-minded goal; hers was of continuing on to medical school and becoming a physician.

While she is still interested in pursuing an M.D., Francomacaro has added a Ph.D. to her aspirations as well, and now envisions "a career that's at the intersection of practicing medicine and conducting medical research, where I can both be in a laboratory trying to identify mechanistic causes of disease states, and be in a clinical setting interacting with patients who have those disease states."

Francomacaro, a cell biology/biochemistry major, said it was exposure to real-world research, starting in her first semester at Bucknell, that helped her discover her passion for scientific inquiry.

"What draws me to science is not that we have all the answers, but that there's the potential for finding answers if you know which questions to ask and how to ask them," Francomacaro said. "It's like a puzzle where there is a right answer but no one knows what it is."

Francomacaro's current research with Professor Rebecca Fagan Switzer examines mutations in a specific enzyme, DNMT1, that have been found in certain human neurodegenerative diseases. She is planning to write an honors thesis about her work during her senior year.

Francomacaro, right, does research in the lab of Professor Rebecca Fagan Switzer, left. Photo by Emily Paine, Division of Communications

Francomacaro said interacting with faculty and advisers such as Professors Switzer and Tim Strein, chemistry, Jennie Stevenson, psychology, and Alison Patterson, pre-health adviser — all of whom wrote in support of her Goldwater application — helped her refine a plan for integrating her love of research and a career in medicine.

"They all talked to me about what it means to get a Ph.D., what it means to get an M.D., and what it means to have both and work at the intersection of those fields," Francomacaro said.

A Presidential Fellow, Francomacaro has also built on the passion for helping others that drove her interest in medicine at Bucknell. Last year she took part in the annual Bucknell Brigade volunteer trip supporting a free health clinic in Nicaragua, an effort she continues to aid as co‑chair of fundraising. She's also the president of service organization Alpha Phi Omega.

A String of Achievements
Francomacaro and Lacey's accomplishment follows a string of Bucknell students who've won Goldwater Scholarships in recent years. Mathematics major Nathan Ryan '17 received a Goldwater in 2016, while dual animal behavior and applied mathematical sciences major  Meredith Lutz '17 earned one in 2015.

Other recent scholarship winners include Savanna Morrison '18, who earned a Beinecke Scholarship supporting graduate studies of students in the arts, humanities and social sciences, and Dominic Scicchitano '19, who earned an Udall Scholarship for leadership, public service and commitment to issues related to Native American nations or the environment.