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Maura McDonagh
October 25, 2019

BME undergrad McDonagh wins Erroll B. Davis Award

Written By: Alex Holloway


Maura McDonagh has long looked to Erroll B. Davis Award recipients as role models.

Now she is one.

McDonagh, a 22-year-old biomedical engineering undergraduate with a double major in communication arts, is one of two UW-Madison College of Engineering students to receive the 2019 Alliant Energy/Erroll B. Davis, Jr. Academic Achievement Award. The awards are given each year to recognize the academic and community service from engineering and business students from traditionally underrepresented groups at UW-Madison and UW-Platteville.

Winning the award, McDonagh says, is an honor. She said that’s especially true after holding previous winners in such high regard, and she hopes to carry on that role for UW-Madison students who will follow after her.

“I was totally honored,” she says. “I have looked up to previous awardees. They’ve been my mentors as I’ve gone through my career. Being among those names is very humbling. I was ecstatic and very, very honored.”

McDonagh has researched under Chemical and Biological Engineering Professor Eric V. Shusta. Her research focused on Group B streptococcus—the bacteria that can cause meningitis in newborns.

“The focus is on the lab’s stem cell-based model of the blood-brain barrier,” she says. “My work has been looking at how that model responds to infection with that pathogen. We want to understand how it’s working.”

Before joining Shusta’s lab, McDonagh worked with two pancreatic research labs in Chicago and also conducted biochemistry-based research while studying abroad at the University of Oxford in 2018.

Beyond the lab, McDonagh is the incoming president for UW-Madison’s chapter of the Society of Hispanic Engineers, which she’s been involved with since her sophomore year. The chapter focuses on community outreach and encouraging high school students to consider STEM careers.

She also tutors out of the College of Engineering’s Undergraduate Learning Center, because she believes coursework shouldn’t be a limiting factor for students chasing their dreams.

“Many of my students are frequent flyers at the Diversity Affairs Office, which aims to support students from traditionally underrepresented groups in engineering,” McDonagh says. “I hope to encourage students to continue their hard efforts and pursue amazing things.”

It was robotics in high school that sparked McDonagh’s interest in engineering, and she’s long been interested in biology and the human body. Biomedical engineering allowed her to combine those passions.

“I wanted to be building and coming up with unique solutions to complex problems,” she says. “I came in knowing I wanted to do engineering and I’m definitely happy with my choices.”

McDonagh expects to graduate in spring 2020. After that, she said she plans to attend graduate school and is exploring a range of options for that.

Whatever the future brings, she said she wants to keep helping people.

“I don’t ever want to be removed from that,” she says. “I want to maintain seeing patients and being a provider while continuing to lift up others.”