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Digging into DNA

CMU undergrad Michael Willis wins prestigious science fellowship

Whether he was born to become a scientist or was simply inspired to pursue that path is a mystery Michael Willis might be better equipped to answer after he finishes his postgraduate studies.

Willis attended his hometown school, Colorado Mesa University, on a full-ride academic scholarship and he graduated in May with a degree in biochemistry, a 4.0 grade-point average, and a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Fellowship that covers tuition, fees and a $37,000 stipend.

He is the first undergraduate in CMU history to earn an NSF Fellowship — an award that typically goes to a graduate student. He plans to use it to pursue both a master’s and doctorate degree at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities (UMTC).

“My dad, Derrall, was a biologist at St. Mary’s Medical Center and always brought that kind of stuff home,” said Willis. He continued, “that’s probably why I’ve always loved biology — he got me very engaged with that — and then I took Advanced Placement chemistry at Grand Junction High School because chemistry kind of explains how biology works.” His mom, Kirsten Kurath, is a Grand Junction attorney specializing in water law.

So is science in his blood? Is this all about DNA? He might find out.

Willis won his fellowship with a proposal to help develop a polymer delivery system similar to the Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats Cas9 (CRSPR/Cas9) tool which uses the Cas9 protein to modify DNA by cutting it and inserting it into other genomes.

“One issue with that protein is that you need to get it inside the cells for it to work, and current methods of accomplishing that are either super-expensive or very difficult to use. What I’ll be researching is a way to potentially alleviate those problems,” he said.

Willis chose UMTC for his postgraduate studies because of the unique research opportunities available at the university, and because of a professor there with extensive knowledge about the project he plans to pursue.

“I’ll begin my research during the summer, then will start my fellowship at UMTC in the fall. I’m pretty excited about grad school. I put in a lot of effort to get where I am now,” he said.

Meanwhile, his career blueprint remains a work in progress. Willis said he’s looking into utilizing his education in the industrial sector, or possibly remaining in the academic setting as a teacher or principal investigator. ­­


Written by Dennis Taylor