University students go four for four on Goldwater Scholarship

Monday, April 9, 2018 - 4:56pm

Sticking with the theme of fours in University of Michigan athletics, all four of the University's student nominees received the Goldwater Scholarship for the first time since 2002. The Goldwater Scholarship is a top award for students pursuing graduate careers in STEM, providing recipients with up to $7,500 in scholarship funds for their graduate studies.

Henry Dyson, director of the Office of National Scholarships and Fellowships, said in an email interview the University was one of three schools where all nominees won the award, along with Northeastern University and the University of Maryland. Dyson said the University ranks eighth in total students, tied with Kansas State, with 74 total scholarship recipients since the scholarship’s inception.

The process for the Goldwater Scholarship requires a University nomination, and each school is limited to four nominees. Dyson said this year ONSF received 16 applications for four nominations. The nominees had an average grade point average of 3.9 and significant research experience.

“It’s typically one of the most competitive nomination processes that ONSF runs each year,” Dyson wrote. “This was one of the strongest applicant pools we’ve had in some time.”

The University also had multiple seniors and graduate students receive the similar National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowships Program awards. The GRFP provides recipients with a three-year stipend for educational and research opportunities. Dyson said he sees overlap between the students who apply for both opportunities.

“Every year when I look at the recipients for the NSF-GRFP, I recognize the many names of students who applied for the Goldwater Scholarship,” Dyson wrote. “Many of these applicants were not nominated for Goldwater, but did go on to receive the NSF-GRFP in senior year or as first or second-year PhD students. So I would not want the competitiveness of the Goldwater nomination process to dissuade students from applying.”

Dyson credits the success of the nominees to undergraduate research at the University. He said many applicants begin their research careers in the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program as underclassmen. He said some students make substantive contributions to research and have often authored or co-authored publications. Another feature of the recipients is their completion of summer research opportunities at funded programs around the country.

“Our Goldwater and NSF-GRFP recipients speak to the incredibly strong culture of undergraduate research that we have at UM,” Dyson wrote. “This is truly one of the strongest parts of our undergraduate education.”

LSA senior Tali Khain, one of the winners of the Goldwater Scholarship, has been involved in research since her freshman year. She currently works with Prof. David Gerdes on a solar system project in the Physics Department studying objects beyond Neptune’s orbit in a region called the Kuiper belt.

“Last summer I was at CalTech (California Institute of Technology) working with professors who think there might be another planet in our solar system,” Khain said. “It’s called the Planet 9 hypothesis and they think there might be another planet based on these Kuiper belt objects. It’s really cool that we are able to model objects that are so far away and use them as indirect evidence for an undiscovered planet in our solar system.”

Khain said she hopes to use the Goldwater Scholarship to go to graduate school for physics and continue to work in astrophysics.

“(Receiving the scholarship) is extremely exciting,” Khain said. “I’ve been working towards this for a very long time and I am honored to have gotten it.”

LSA senior Carolyn Suh, another recipient, works in the Narayan Lab, studying biocatalysis to try and use enzymes to perform chemical reactions. She said this biocatalysis knowledge could offer a more sustainable method of performing experiments. Suh also worked in a biochemistry lab researching and examining how microorganisms in the gut impact human health.

Suh said she hopes the scholarship will allow her to focus on her research in graduate school. She hopes to earn her doctorate in organic chemistry and go into academia and research.

“I feel incredibly honored,” Suh said. “It’s an amazing opportunity and a prestigious title to hold … I feel really thankful to my lab members and all of those who have supported me and the University which has provided me with so many research opportunities.”

LSA junior Noah McNeal, a scholarship recipient, works with high energy particle physics and filling in the gaps of the Standard Model of physics. He is studying in the KOTO Lab, working specifically in the decay of kaon particles.

“The problems we want to solve in physics are tough questions that we don’t have any answers to,” McNeal said. “They are fundamental and concern why we exist, how we exist and how this universe is piece-by-piece; we can understand the fuller picture.”

McNeal began his research as a freshman in UROP and hopes to continue working with the lab and write a thesis. He plans to go to graduate school to study physics and go into a career as a physics researcher.

McNeal said he has spent a long time working on this application for the Goldwater Scholarship and has learned more about himself and his career path through this process.

“I am elated,” McNeal said. “I have been working on it all of fall semester so getting to this point was something that … has been incredibly rewarding. The inward thinking I’ve done and the introspective thinking about my future and my career goals has been invigorating and I feel that I am on a career path and line of work that suits me.”

Engineering senior Eric Winsor, the fourth recipient, won the scholarship for his work in mathematics. According to Dyson, the Mathematics Department has had at least one Goldwater Scholarship recipient every year since 2002.