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Second generation Fulbrighter wins major new award

Second generation Fulbrighter wins major new award

University of Otago student Irene Ballagh has been selected as one of 27 winners worldwide of the major new International Fulbright Science and Technology Awards, becoming a second generation Fulbrighter in the process.

The US government’s most prestigious and valuable education scholarships, the new awards were offered for the first time in 2006 and are the first Fulbright student awards to be selected by international competition, with Fulbright Commissions and US Embassies around the world invited to nominate two candidates each. In this pilot year, 119 nominations were submitted by 70 countries. The awards provide for students to complete a PhD at a US university, covering full tuition and a monthly stipend for three years (with their host university to cover the remainder of their degree), health insurance coverage, allowances for books and equipment, research, and professional conferences.

Irene, who is currently completing a Bachelor of Science (Honours) in Neuroscience, was an outstanding candidate in recent Fulbright New Zealand Graduate Award applications. Her academic achievements in undergraduate studies had previously earned her the University of Otago's Dostoevsky Prize in Psychology and Sir George Grey Prestige Scholarship in Science. "I was happy just to get the nomination from Fulbright New Zealand," said Irene in reaction to winning the award. "I didn't really think I had much of a chance of receiving one of these awards, so when the phone call came I was pretty blown away. Since then I've been walking on air. I had two exams last week that I went through with a smile on my face, which surprised the other people in the room a bit, I think!"

Irene plans to focus her PhD studies on the brain's capacity to alter and adapt through synaptic plasticity - changes in the connections between neurons. She is particularly interested in the role of these connections in learning and memory. "I have always been fascinated by how humans work," she explains. "It seems to me that the brain is the last, greatest mystery remaining to science. It is more complicated than a supercomputer, and is the first and last instrument we use to understand the world. To understand the world, we need to understand our brains."

Irene's father, Professor Rob Ballagh, was himself a Fulbright New Zealand Graduate Student in 1973. He completed a PhD in theoretical physics at the University of Colorado and is now a Professor of Physics at the University of Otago. Irene's earliest memories are of international travel. "During my childhood we accompanied my father on several sabbatical trips to live in Australia, the USA, England and Austria," she recalls. "The experiences I had on these trips taught me two things, that I loved experiencing new countries and meeting new people, and that scientific research was possibly the best career anyone could have because it let you travel and spend your whole life asking the question that was never too far away from my lips - why does that happen?"

"This scholarship is really a great honour and achievement for Irene, and I am very proud of her," says her father. "I know it will have a big impact on her life, just as my own Fulbright award many years ago had for me. I had wonderful experiences, and made lifelong friends and a great network of professional colleagues. It will be the same for Irene, I am certain, and she will look back on it as a crucial point in her career."


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