Elite Company

By Maggie Teson

Brendan Marsh

2017 Mark Twain Fellow Brendan Marsh will study at the University of Cambridge in England next fall. (Photo by Rob Hill)

Senior Brendan Marsh was not sure why he was being led into the Chancellor’s Conference Room in Jesse Hall. He was told he was needed for a photo, but once he entered, he found a Chancellor’s Staff meeting being held. Interim Chancellor Hank Foley invited Marsh in and made a special announcement: Marsh was the 2017 recipient of the Mark Twain Fellowship.

With that, Marsh immediately realized that his dream of studying at the University of Cambridge in England would become a reality.

“I was so happy that I almost started crying as soon as I found out I got the fellowship,” Marsh says. “This is just one of the many ways Mizzou has been so good to me, and it’s going to be an honor to represent Mizzou in England. I’m going to give it everything I have.”

The Mark Twain Fellowship is an MU-sponsored award that provides support to Mizzou students and recent alumni seeking to pursue graduate study abroad in any discipline. It covers full tuition and fees at a foreign university and offers a stipend for housing, other living costs and transportation. Individuals who apply for a Rhodes, Marshall, Mitchell, Fulbright, Gates-Cambridge, Churchill or other comparable, nationally recognized fellowship programs, and are not selected, qualify to apply for the Mark Twain award.

Marsh applied for four major fellowships. While he did not receive any of them, he was not discouraged. Resolute in his aspiration to study at Cambridge, he applied for the Mark Twain Fellowship.

“The Mark Twain Fellowship is extremely generous, but I view it not as a gift but an investment in both the recipient and their passions,” Marsh says.

At Cambridge, Marsh will pursue a master’s degree in applied mathematics and theoretical physics. He will be taking a one-year course called Part III of the Mathematical Tripos, which is regarded as one of the most difficult and intensive mathematics courses in existence. Legendary scientists have taken the course, and some of the world’s leading mathematicians have taught it. The distinguished theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking is a current faculty member.

“Some of the founding fathers of modern physics have taken the course and I want to follow in their footsteps,” Marsh says. “I want to get the best training in applied mathematics and theoretical physics the world has to offer. I find nothing more exciting than the thought of attending, and the Mark Twain Fellowship is going to make it happen.”

Marsh is passionate about improving people’s lives through physics and mathematics. In an effort to accomplish that goal, he learns as much as he can by majoring in both subjects, while also pursuing a minor in computer science. He has taken a variety of challenging courses, including a graduate course in mathematical physics and a one-on-one course in advanced theoretical physics, maintaining a 4.0 grade-point average even with the rigorous coursework.

“What sets me apart as a student is the wide breadth and depth of knowledge I have developed over physics, mathematics and computer science, as well as the creative thinking I use to tie far-reaching concepts across those disciplines together,” Marsh says.

Marsh applies what he learns in the classroom to the research he conducts in Gavin King’s physics laboratory. King is an associate professor of physics and a joint associate professor of biochemistry at MU. Marsh has been working in King’s lab since he was a freshman. Currently, he uses atomic force microscopy to study membrane proteins, which dictate what passes in and out of cells. The research aids in developing drugs that are more effective and improving the understanding of how the human body works.

“In addition to pushing my research group and me into new areas, Brendan is also laudable for pushing himself into new areas,” King says. “He pushes himself out of his comfort zone and seeks new challenges.”

Marsh spent the last two summers exploring the frontiers of physics research. In 2015, he worked at the Stanford Research Institute to develop a hyperspectral imaging device designed to quickly diagnose cancer from a blood sample. During the summer of 2016, Marsh conducted research at the University of Goettingen in Germany where he created an artificial intelligence system to detect subatomic particles.

However, there is more to Marsh than classes and research; he is also the captain of Mizzou’s triathlon team.

Brendan Marsh World Championship Qualifier

Brendan Marsh (far right) competes at the New Orleans World Championship Qualifier last fall.

“My escape is the team,” Marsh says. “Whenever things start to become a bit much, I go run or bike or swim or lift weights for a while, and I usually feel better.”

As team captain, Marsh has increased membership and helped the team gain recognition. Along with four of his teammates, Marsh earned a position on Team USA at the amateur triathlon World Championships in August 2017.

“It’s been extremely rewarding to produce not just a close-knit team of students, but also an increasingly elite group of athletes,” Marsh says.

The Mark Twain Fellowship adds to a long list of accomplishments for Marsh. As a sophomore, he received the Goldwater Scholarship, which is the most prestigious undergraduate award given in the sciences. He also earned the University of Missouri Award for Academic Distinction, which recognizes undergraduate students who go above and beyond expectations to contribute to the academic atmosphere.

“Mizzou has taught me everything,” Marsh says. “So many professors and friends and advisers have been incredibly caring and supportive of me and have helped me achieve all these opportunities, which is something I want to reflect going forward.”

After graduating from MU and obtaining his master’s degree from the University of Cambridge, Marsh will pursue a doctorate at Stanford University, then hopes to become a professor and conduct research.

“It was obvious I wanted to spend my life doing research after just a few months working in Dr. King’s lab,” Marsh says. “I love the creativity it affords me to come up with solutions to attack pressing problems in science. What I like most is discovering new things and figuring out how those discoveries can be used to help people or the world.”