Changing the World One Nanoparticle at a Time
By Joni Kirk
When you look at Quinn MacPherson's life, it's not surprising that he chose the University of Idaho.
He was homeschooled in Deary, Idaho, with his older brother and two sisters. His parents were – and very much still are – hands-on in his education. His father is a research associate in chemical engineering and has a passion for physics – a passion he now shares with his son.
MacPherson was raised in the Catholic church, and still is an active parishioner. It helps that his church, Moscow's St. Augustine's Catholic Center, is located at the edge of the university campus.
"The church was a good reason for me to go to the University of Idaho," says MacPherson. "There are a lot of people I know – professors, people in the church. It's a big part of my life."
Yes, community connections are important to MacPherson.
So when MacPherson was in high school, he started taking dual-enrollment courses and working on research projects at the University.
"I first met Quinn while he was still a junior in high school," noted Rick Wells, professor of electrical and computer engineering, in his Goldwater Scholar nomination letter for MacPherson. "I happened to come across him studying in the hallway of my building and noticed he was studying a college junior-year textbook on electronics."
Wells was astounded to learn he was only 16 and in high school. "A few minutes into the conversation was enough for me to tell he really did comprehend the material he was studying," says Wells. "I offered him a job on the spot for that summer, working as a research apprentice in my laboratory on my flagship neural networks project."
Much to Wells' surprise, MacPherson completed the "summer" project in one week, and Wells found himself scrambling to keep ahead of him.
"By the end of the summer, he had proven to be more productive, more creative and done more to advance my research than my entire crew of graduate and undergraduate researchers combined," says Wells.
Before he had graduated from high school, MacPherson had co-authored two scientific conference papers that were presented at the world's most prestigious computational neuroscience conference.
MacPherson now considers Wells a friend and mentor. And that was just the start of his University connections.
"After my junior year of high school, I spoke with Dr. [David] McIlroy," says MacPherson. "He said if I came to the University as a physics major, he would give me a scholarship and a job. So I accepted."
He currently works as an undergraduate researcher, looking at nanotechnology for biological and biomedical applications.
It's MacPherson's achievements like this that led to him being named a Goldwater Scholar – a prestigious national award that recognizes excellence in science and mathematics. And he attributes the University's research-minded community for helping make it all possible.
"The undergraduate research opportunities are amazing," says MacPherson, who also is a member of the Honors Program. "They are projects the professors care about. They also care about their students, and provide great insights."
He would know first-hand. In addition to his work with Wells and McIlroy, he also worked in Associate Professor Christine Berven's physics lab. And this summer, he's slated to work with Associate Professor of Soil Sciences Jodi Johnson-Maynard in a new research area – looking for the Giant Palouse Earthworm.
MacPherson has achieved junior standing with dual majors in materials science engineering and physics, and is enrolled in a graduate-level course in complex variables mathematics. While these complex topics would be enough of a challenge for most, MacPherson has a greater struggle in front of him.
"I'm worried that I will have to choose what to do at some point," he laughs. "I'm delaying as long as possible."
“I don't know how this young man will eventually change the world, but I do expect him to," says Wells.