A triple threat

Three majors and a nonprofit dedicated to changing the narrative around substance use disorders – and Madelyn Blake is just getting started!
May 19, 2022

College of Biological Sciences sophomore, Madelyn Blake joined an elite group of University of Minnesota scholars this semester after being recognized as a Goldwater Scholar. This prestigious, competitive scholarship is awarded annually to outstanding sophomores and juniors who intend to pursue research-oriented careers in mathematics, the natural sciences, and engineering. Just 71 University of Minnesota students have been named Goldwater Scholars since the program launched a little over three decades ago. Madelyn will receive $7,500 scholarships for the next two years to support her research endeavors. 

We met up with Madelyn to learn more about her research and ambitions.

Where did you get your spark for science and what drew you to your area of study?
When I was in high school, I was obsessed with genome engineering – I couldn’t get enough of it! Everything from researching genetically modified mosquitoes that wouldn’t carry malaria to the genetic modification of pigs to be able to transplant tissues and organs into human recipients. I truly think genetic modification will be the medicine of the future and it will always be a core passion of mine, but while taking courses at the University of Minnesota I developed an interest in the human brain as well. It has been fascinating to take a closer look at the brain and understand the structure and organization of the nervous system. There is so much beauty in neurology and science.

What are you currently passionate about? 
I am very passionate about making a genuine change with how the world sees people with substance use disorders. I have family members who are impacted by substance use disorders, so this research is very personal and important to me. 

In response, I founded a nonprofit, Brains for Change, to provide neuroscience-based drug and addiction curriculum to schools and community organizations. There is a large educational gap in studying the science behind substance use, and it is my mission to help make the topic accessible and easy to understand when someone finds themself in a similar situation with a loved one.

While at the U, I have been working with neuroscience professor Benjamin Saunders to investigate dopamine signaling in the brain as it relates to substance use. As I started learning more about the brain and understanding how our brain can make changes that lead to addiction, I am realizing just how serious the development of a substance use disorder can be. I feel empowered knowing that one day I may be able to develop innovative therapies that control or even cure substance use disorders. 

What’s ahead for your future?
I am so thankful for the wonderful support network I have within the College of Biological Sciences and at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. My Goldwater Scholarship achievement is a major step towards my next pursuit. I am currently in the process of applying for several other highly selective scholarships while I finish my undergraduate degree triple majoring in Genetics, Cell Biology, and Development; Neuroscience; and Cellular and Organismal Physiology. 

As I dream about my future, I hope to have the opportunity to participate in a UK fellowship experience (Rhodes, Marshall, or Churchill Scholarships) which would allow me to further explore my interests surrounding substance use with some of the brightest minds in the field and help me gain further clarity on the exact direction of a MD/PhD program. I would love to eventually be a leader in the field and at the forefront of policies surrounding substance use and substance use disorders. –Christine Hazuka