MACON – Mercer University sophomore Kirsten Brown has earned one of the nation's most prestigious and competitive research scholarships for undergraduate students, the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, which was awarded to only 283 students for the 2014-2015 academic year. Brown is the University's third-ever Goldwater Scholarship winner, and its second in two years.
Brown received the scholarship based on academic merit from a field of 1,166 mathematics, science and engineering students who were nominated by the faculties of colleges and universities nationwide. The one- and two-year scholarships, awarded to undergraduate sophomores and juniors, cover the cost of tuition, fees, books, and room and board up to a maximum of $7,500 per year.
"Applicants undergo a rigorous application process and must write a detailed scientific proposal for an independent research project," said Dr. Adam Kiefer, assistant professor of chemistry and the Goldwater Scholarship faculty representative at Mercer. "This award is not only a testament to Kirsten's hard work, intelligence and determination, but also recognizes her potential as a future researcher."
"I was kind of ecstatic," said Brown, who learned she had received the scholarship on a University-chartered bus ride to the NCAA men's basketball tournament. "If I would have been standing, I would have started jumping up and down."
Brown, from Tallahassee, Fla., is a chemistry and computational science major who works in the lab of Dr. Garland Crawford, assistant professor of chemistry, to investigate a hexosaminidase enzyme known as OGA. Brown brings a unique computational approach to the research as she attempts to determine how computers might be used to predict alterations to the enzyme that may increase or decrease interactions between a target and that particular enzyme.
"Kirsten is a phenomenal student, very conscientious, very engaged," said Dr. Crawford. "She came to us with a very good background in general chemistry. Where she is now academically is well beyond her years."
Brown, who plans to attend a graduate school with a strong biochemical research program, will be participating in a summer research experience at Oak Ridge National Laboratories in Tennessee this summer to perform molecular dynamics simulations. She was selected as an honorable mention for a presentation at the Herty Medalist Undergraduate Research Symposium in the fall, and she performed research last summer with Dr. Crawford as part of the Mercer Undergraduate Biomedical Scholar (MUBS) Training Initiative.
Goldwater Scholars have very impressive academic qualifications that have garnered the attention of prestigious post-graduate fellowship programs. Recent Goldwater Scholars have been awarded 80 Rhodes Scholarships, 117 Marshall Awards, 112 Churchill Scholarships and numerous other distinguished fellowships, such as the National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowships.
Additionally, junior Jennifer Nguyen, from Griffin, was one of 247 students selected as an honorable mention for the Goldwater Scholarship. Nguyen is a biochemistry and molecular biology major who works in the lab of Dr. David Goode, assistant professor of chemistry, to identify compounds that will bind cholera toxin using a dynamic combinatorial chemistry approach – as a potential future treatment for cholera infection.
"Jennifer is an outstanding student," said Dr. Goode. "She is usually quiet in the classroom, but you can tell that she's taking everything in. She is very organized, focused and hard-working in the lab."
Nguyen, who plans to study pharmacology in graduate school, will participate in a Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Summer Program at Johns Hopkins University this summer, after participating in a similar program last summer at Auburn University. She was also a participant in the MUBS Training Initiative as a freshman, performing research with Dr. Katharine Northcutt, assistant professor of biology. Together, Nguyen and Dr. Northcutt co-published an academic paper about the networks of neurons in the brain that are important for rat play behavior.
"I was very happy to hear the news," said Nguyen. "This is a sign of my hard work and will help me in the future as I continue to perform research and apply to graduate schools."
Both Brown and Nguyen are students in the University Honors Program.
The Goldwater Foundation is a federally endowed agency established by Public Law 99-661 on Nov. 14, 1986. The scholarship program, honoring Senator Barry Goldwater, was designed to foster and encourage outstanding students to pursue careers in the fields of mathematics, the natural sciences and engineering. The Goldwater Scholarship is the premier undergraduate award of its type in these fields. Since its first award in 1989, the Foundation has bestowed 7,163 scholarships worth approximately 46 million dollars.