According to Associate Professor Ryan Wong, Biology and Neuroscience, Sean Bresnahan may be the first undergraduate at UNO to earn the prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (GRFP). Wong and colleagues recall UNO graduate students like Tyler Herek who received the award in 2015 but no undergraduates, at least in recent history.
"It is a 5 year award ($138,000) with about a 16% funding rate," adds Wong. According to NSF “Fellows are expected to become globally engaged knowledge experts and leaders who can contribute significantly to research, education, and innovations in science and engineering." Over the history of the award, 42 NSF Fellows have become Nobel laureates.
How does it feel to be in the company of Nobel laureates? Bresnahan was attending a lecture by Dr. Wong when the email announcing his award caught his attention. "I saw the email, went into shock, and put my laptop in front of him with the email opened as I went up to present a paper...my legs didn't stop shaking the entire presentation!"
Bresnahan has also received fellowships from Pennsylvania State University. He explains, "I begin as a Molecular, Cellular, and Integrative Biosciences PhD student at Penn State in August, 2019, and will study as an NSF Graduate Research Fellow, a Penn State University Graduate Fellow, and an Integrative Pollinator Ecology Fellow through the Center for Pollinator Research."
Bresnahan has been asking "how?" since his childhood. He writes, "Riding across the street of my fairly isolated hometown on an ‘electric bike’ I’d just finished building, I heard my mother’s voice: 'Sean Thomas Bresnahan –what on earth happened to the treadmill?' I too demanded answers. As a child, my favored method of inquiry was simply to take things apart and marvel at all the funny-looking gizmos that made technology function as intended."
Life experiences eventually brought him to life sciences classes at Metropolitan Community College (MCC). Bresnahan credits Dr. Carla Delucchi at MCC for setting him on this course: "She assured me that there would be others along the way who would believe in me. And she was right!"
Once at UNO, Bresnahan took Introduction to Neuroscience with Dr. Wong and Wong invited him to join his research program, an NSF funded program studying the role of somatic hair cells in the zebrafish startle-response behavior. Bresnahan says, "The first few months working in his lab were somewhat akin to a molecular biology boot camp, but one with extreme attention paid to where the individual is at and guidance as to where they'd like to go with the experience."
"Sean has demonstrated immense curiosity, commitment and motivation for pursuing integrative research questions," offers Wong. "He has a tendency to delve really deeply into a problem and tries to understand every single detail."
Bresnahan learned more about research and leading teams of researchers in his work with Associate Professor Jim Rogers, Mathematics. He helped in the construction and analysis of a Boolean network model of macrophage cell signaling events in response to bacterial, viral, and HIV infections. "Dr. Rogers essentially gave me free reign to learn and step into whatever role suited my interests; not only did he help me out with my fear of numbers, he's continued to give guidance and insight into the professional world, and what it means to benevolently direct and lead a group of peers who are in every way as skilled in their roles," says Bresnahan.
At PSU, Bresnahan will work with Drs. Christina Grozinger, Distinguished Professor Entomology and Director of the Center for Pollinator Research, and István Albert, Research Professor of Bioinformatics and Director of the Penn State Bioinformatics Consulting Center.
Wong also describes Bresnahan as someone with a "passion for communicating science to the public and stimulating participation of the public in science."
After a summer volunteering with NeuroWOW, a UNO program that introduces K-12 students to the field of neuroscience, Bresnahan started his own outreach programs. With the help of others at UNO, he started an organization called Community Science Table (CST). According to Bresnahan, the group "provides opportunities to tackle issues at the intersections of science communication, education, and politics," for example, sponsoring a presentation on the stigma of mental illness and the role of the media; and a workshop on science storytelling skills.
Bresnahan also founded a nonprofit organization called HiveMind Research Inc, with help from Associate Professor Claudia Rauter, Biology, which offers public school students the chance to participate in a community research project. Bresnahan explains, "Students participate via a web-based submission portal..., submitting information relevant to the molecular basis of maternal care in burying beetles."
He plans to continue his efforts to communicate science to the public as he heads to PSU. Bresnahan adds, "A big part of both the GRFP and the (PSU) Integrative Pollinator Ecology fellowship is to develop the broader impacts of your research. I'm planning to work alongside the Center for Pollinator Research at PSU and their fantastic community outreach programs."
Sean Bresnahan's dream is to one day be a university professor, teaching classes and directing his own lab. He writes, "At the core, my objective is to continue asking “how”; to study these complex systems in nature, and to encourage my own students to ask their own questions...but perhaps not by dissecting their mothers’ treadmills."