Tips and Tricks from the 2017 Physics Scholar Recipients
By Rachel Gaal
A Goldwater Scholar has a big reputation to uphold. Known by many postgraduate institutions as the "premier undergraduate scholarship" for research, students must apply through a campus representative, and must be nominated by their home institution to become eligible. Looking at the numbers, each scholar can receive up to $7,500 in funding for each of their junior and senior years. Applying to this prestigious and competitive award can be daunting, not to mention balancing the necessary coursework.
The Goldwater Scholarship is intended to fund undergraduates with the ability to eventually pursue and excel in research. Each applicant is encouraged to tell the story of their future goals, and explain their research intentions. While prior research experience is not an application requirement, a review of those selected for the award reveals that many, if not most students, are already involved in research. Virtually all Goldwater Scholars hope to pursue a Ph.D.
How does the scholarship benefit applicants beyond funding? And more importantly, what makes a student application stand out? In physics, it seems to involve a mix of time-management, making strong connections, and developing a passion for pursuing the unknown. Five of the 2017 physics scholars sat down with APS News and talked about their experiences of applying to the Goldwater scholarship.
Gabriel Juul is completing his junior year at Whitman College in physics. His research goals, however, involve aerospace engineering. When filling out his application, Juul found himself in new territory, writing about a field he had no research experience in — planetary science.
"[While] doing my research, I saw a planetary scientist discussing the terraforming of Mars in a YouTube video," Juul said. "I [decided to] reach out to him, and he put me in contact with a researcher who emailed me a list of extremely helpful sources."
Juul said that the application process in itself helped piece together his future goals. "I sometimes think I learned more during the weeks of my Goldwater application process than I did in an entire year studying at college," he admitted. "It forced me to bring down to earth some of the options that were floating around when I considered my future, to question how I might fit in a world of researchers, and where my research interests truly lie … These are questions I’m still answering, but the Goldwater process was immense in helping me grapple with them."
Étude O'Neel-Judy of Northern Arizona University used to despise math and physics. It wasn’t until he started reading about general relativity and quantum mechanics in books by Stephen Hawking and Brian Green that he realized his calling was in physics research.
"The fantastic concepts presented in these works dazzled me more than any sci-fi," O’Neel-Judy explained. "My ambition to do research with general relativity drove me to ask [my professor] Dave Cole, what math that would require. With his guidance, and by asking around the department to find someone willing to teach me, within a year I had fulfilled all the prerequisites [for his general relativity course]. ... This was the [class] where I first had the idea that led to my research project."
O’Neel-Judy is now working on an original project in mathematical physics — coming up with a way to model spacetime that is more visually intuitive. With the Goldwater Scholarship now in hand, he says his future plans have only become more research-focused.
"I haven't double-checked my math, but I believe that I will finally be able to quit my two jobs and devote all my spare time to research," stated O’Neel-Judy. "I plan on working on two simultaneous research projects next year, one in the math department, and one in the Gibbs Nanotechnology lab."
His advice to future applicants is to start as early as possible. "I wish I had started my freshmen year, but you can never do too much research," he said. "… Start developing good relationships with the faculty in your department, and with your research mentors. A good letter of recommendation from someone that knows you well goes very far."
Madelyn Leembruugen of the University of Cincinnati grew up knowing she wanted to be involved in research. But when her experience fell short of her expectations, she turned to outside resources for support.
"I began training with an observational astrophysics research group, but I realized I was not interested in computational research," Leembruugen said. "I [decided to] join the APS National Mentoring Community (NMC) and began meeting with a mentor, and participated in the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Research Experience for Women Undergraduates. During WISE, I began working on my current project under the supervision of my NMC mentor, Rohana Wijewardhana."
Leembruugen currently studies theoretical particles called axions, and their possible contribution to dark matter. While her research is mostly of the pencil and paper variety, not performed in a lab, her passion for pursuing theoretical research steered her goals for the future.
"Since winning [the scholarship] I have gained confidence in my own abilities, and become more determined to continue working hard," she said. "I think students considering applying to Goldwater should be bold and unafraid to discuss their triumphs, as well as the trials they face throughout their journey. I think it is also important for applicants to establish lofty goals whether or not they [are selected]. The best research is motivated by curiosity, not desire for recognition!"
Dylan Renaud of the New Jersey Institute of Technology was an honorable mention the first time he applied to the Goldwater scholarship his sophomore year. He had conducted research in Japan his freshman year, learning about spectroscopy and fabrication of 2D materials, but was not chosen as a scholar.
"The next year, I traveled to Germany after receiving a fellowship and pursued further work on [materials research]," Renaud said. "I also received help from [my professor] John Carpinelli during the nomination process. Without his support and guidance, I don't believe I would have received this award [my junior year]."
Not deterred by his first application, Renaud recommends applying for the scholarship despite any shortfalls that you think exist in your resume. "[Simply] apply to the scholarship! Technically, you don't even need to have research experience," he exclaimed. "Secondly, try to work with your research supervisor when writing your research proposal for the scholarship. I ended up writing my proposal by myself, and this led to me having to do a substantial amount of literature review which interfered with [my] coursework."
Evan Coleman of Brown University is the first physics major from Brown to receive a Goldwater Scholarship. His interest in particle physics led him to explore the mentoring available at Brown University early on in his undergraduate career.
"Our physics department has around 30 students per year," Coleman said. "... [My advisor] Meenakshi Narain heard through one of his students that I was interested in research. I decided to reach out to him, and by the end of my first semester at Brown, I was working in particle physics. Through Professor Narain's support, I spent that summer at Fermilab, where I contributed to various particle identification projects and quark property measurements. I've been hooked on particle physics ever since."
Now with the application process behind him, Coleman says it has prepared him in the best way for graduate school. "I was forced to put my personal story into words, and to communicate my motivations within physics effectively," he said. "I hold strong opinions on the purpose of physics, but I had not previously needed to write them down. … Receiving the Goldwater Scholarship has bolstered my graduate school motivations. I am honored that my work has been recognized."
In honor of their achievement, APS offered a free one-year membership to the new Goldwater scholars. To learn more about the Goldwater Scholarship and their requirements, visit the Barry Goldwater Scholarship Homepage.
©1995 - 2017, AMERICAN PHYSICAL SOCIETY
APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.
Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Rachel Gaal
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik