With research spanning from the sky to the human nervous system to the production of hydrogen for a new generation of vehicles, three University of Virginia students have received prestigious Goldwater Scholarships to pursue their science education.
This year’s recipients are Isabella Dressel, a third-year interdisciplinary major; Dawn Ford, a third-year physics major; and Deniz Guney Olgun, a second-year neuroscience and computer science major.
The scholarship program honors Sen. Barry Goldwater, and was designed to foster and encourage students to pursue research careers in natural sciences, engineering and mathematics. Each Goldwater Scholar annually receives an amount equal to the cost of tuition, mandatory fees, books and room and board, minus the amount of support provided for by other sources, up to a maximum of $7,500 per full academic year.
To compete for a Goldwater Scholarship, students must be nominated by the University, a process facilitated by the Office of Citizen Scholar Development. Members of that office help students with the application and in their continued development as they pursue the Goldwater Scholarship.
This year’s Goldwater Scholarship recipients are:
Dressel, a third-year Echols Scholar, College Science Scholar and environmental science, chemistry and physics interdisciplinary major from Clifton, is conducting research in the lab of Sally Pusede, associate professor of environmental sciences, using daily satellite observations to evaluate how air pollution disproportionately burdens certain communities within major U.S. cities.
“I am currently assessing relationships between nitrogen dioxide air pollution inequalities, urban air quality, climate and overlapping urban heat disparities in 21 U.S. cities,” Dressel said. “My work has shown that communities of color and low-income neighborhoods bear cumulative environmental burdens that in some cities, will likely worsen without interventions due to climate change. I hope that this research can inform and encourage equitable environmental policies.”
Receiving a Goldwater Scholarship reaffirmed Dressel’s desire to pursue a research career, she said.
“It shows that I have the potential to shape the field of atmospheric science,” Dressel said. “Being a Goldwater Scholar also makes me a more competitive applicant for Ph.D. programs that I will apply for in the fall. I am excited to join the Goldwater Scholar community and connect with other students who are pursuing careers in research.”
The Goldwater application pushed her to reassess future goals and how her current research experience will help her achieve them.
“I needed to seriously consider whether I wanted to conduct research at a university or national laboratory in my career,” Dressel said. “This encouraged me to speak with my mentors about their career paths and learn how I could balance both teaching and conducting research. I learned that my career path does not need to be static and that I could switch between the two as my interests and goals develop.”
Robert E. Davis, a professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences, said Dressel is “terrific” in class, where she asks insightful questions.
“She was very focused on doing an interdisciplinary and self-created major that focuses on atmospheric science,” Davis said. “She has put together a well-structured course plan that integrates atmospheric sciences courses from environmental sciences with physics and chemistry.”
Davis said Dressel started research early in her academic career. Focusing on satellite-derived differences in air pollution exposures and how they affect different communities is a timely topic, he said.
“She has one paper published and several more that she is in the process of writing,” Davis said. “In essence, she is doing graduate work to round out her undergraduate career.”
A third-year Echols Scholar, Posse Scholar and physics major from Spring, Texas, Ford is investigating synthesizing low-cost, earth-abundant catalysts for hydrogen production through electrochemical water-splitting.
“I focus on creating new nano-sized structures from molybdenum disulfide and other low-cost materials,” she said. “I’m interested in creating a catalyst that can compete with the industry-standard catalyst, platinum, for hydrogen production. If such a material can be made, the cost of implementing water-splitting as a means of hydrogen production on a commercial scale will be reduced tremendously, and hydrogen could be produced in a more environmentally friendly manner.”
Ford said receiving a Goldwater Scholarship is an acknowledgement of her drive and research output over these past few years.
“This semester has been a very difficult one for me, and receiving this award gave me a second wind to continue to push through,” she said.
Ford, who plans to apply for graduate fellowships, said she eagerly anticipates participating in the network of Goldwater Scholars.
“I am looking forward to the opportunity to be mentored by older Goldwater Scholars and to potentially mentor younger students,” she said. “I would also like to become active in the Goldwater Scholar community and inspire other students like me to reach for excellence in their fields.”
The application process taught Ford about communicating her work.
“When I wrote my research essay, I looked through old PowerPoints and pinpointed the underlying story in my research,” Ford said. “As I wrote my personal narratives, I took some time to really reflect on my previous experiences and deconstruct everything I learned during that time. I feel like I understand what factors in my college experience led me to my current research focus and career goals in a much more organized way that I did prior to applying.”
Stephen McDonnell, an assistant professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, describes Ford as an extremely motivated student who excels in all aspects of her work.
“She is good-natured, good-humored, very personable, easy to be around and also a hard worker,” he said. “She never fails to have an update, which she is very good at communicating. She manages to convey confidence without arrogance, something with which many people struggle. The highest compliment I can give is that, if she could be convinced to stay at UVA for graduate school, I would be delighted to have her work in my group.”
Ford said she followed her research plan.
“I created a plan for my research experience over the semesters leading up to my application and did my best to follow it,” she said. “By the time I applied to Goldwater, the application became a way to showcase the work I put in over the course of my undergraduate career.”
Deniz Guney Olgun
A second-year neuroscience and computer science Echols Scholar from Blacksburg, Olgun is investigating the human nervous system.
“Exploring any gene’s role in disease is straightforward but labor-intensive, so it’s important to pick the best targets for further study,” Olgun said. “I use next-generation sequencing and high-performance computing to efficiently identify targets for treatment in neurological disorders, specifically multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease. Currently, I’m finishing a computational screen of all existing drugs for possible off-label use in demyelinating disorders.”
Olgun said he is excited to join the network of Goldwater Scholars.
“Over the next two years, I will use my experience writing a competitive application to apply for more graduate school fellowships. Thanks the Goldwater Scholars’ network, I have already established numerous contacts with former scholars now in my programs of interest.
“I would say that Deniz is a brilliant and ambitious student,” Alban Gaultier, associate professor of neuroscience, said. “His project is a perfect example of modern biomedical research combining computational and wet bench. I have no doubts he will succeed as a researcher. On a personal level, he is very friendly and easygoing and a pleasure to mentor.”
Olgun said in applying for the scholarship, he thought a lot about how he got to this point in his life.
“What struck me as unique and particularly difficult about the Goldwater was the need to present myself as a fully realized research scientist and person,” he said. “It forced a lot of lateral, big-picture thinking about my life and career direction that has proven helpful.
Olgun said there is value in avoiding premature specialization and becoming a very strong generalist.
“Being an interdisciplinary scientist has afforded me a unique perspective and I’m continuing to broaden my skill base now jumping into cancer biology this summer,” he said. “I’d like to one day do something entirely new. Most of all, I want to thank my mom for the years of hard work and sacrifice she selflessly put into my education and well-being.”