Flinn Scholars drive Arizona universities to elite rank in Goldwater competition

February 14, 2012

By hammersmith

As part of the Flinn Foundation’s interest in supporting the biosciences, for a decade we have been tracking the performance of the bio sector in Arizona–measuring the growth of jobs, wages, venture-capital funding, and so forth. Two weeks ago, we released our annual Progress Report, which included a list of 2011’s most noteworthy developments. My favorite entry on the list? This extraordinary education achievement:

ASU tops nation in Goldwater winners:
Four Arizona State University undergraduate researchers win the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, awarded to students pursuing careers in mathematics, the natural sciences, or engineering. ASU is the nation’s only university with four Goldwater Scholars in both 2010 and 2011.

For a quartet of Goldwater Scholars to emerge from a single university in one year is itself tremendously difficult. Under the rules for the scholarship–widely recognized as the most significant national prize for undergraduates in math and science–a university may nominate no more than four candidates per year. Competition is incredibly fierce. Indeed, with two winners in 2011, the University of Arizona had an excellent showing; in 2010, when both ASU and UA went four-for-four, they outperformed Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Cal Tech, and a host of other historical science-and-math powerhouses.

What’s behind the Goldwater glut at Arizona’s universities? Clearly, research in science, engineering, and mathematics is happening at a level comparable with any institution in the nation. And top researchers are inviting undergraduates into roles where they can make valuable contributions. But also, Arizona has stacked the deck with Flinn Scholars. In 2010, Beryl Jones (’06) was among the Goldwater winners at UA. In 2011, Derek Huang (’09) won the award at UA, as did John Ingraham (’08) and Erik Stout (’08) at ASU.

The four Flinn Scholars to win the Goldwater from 2010 to 2011–matching Yale in that span–intend to pursue doctoral studies in their disparate fields: behavioral neurobiology (Jones), experimental physics (Huang), computational biology (Ingraham), and neuroscience (Stout).

To get a better sense of what sort of research helps a Flinn Scholar become a Goldwater Scholar, I asked two of the 2011 winners, Huang and Stout, to explain the sort of projects in which they have been engaged.

Derek Huang
The prohibitively high cost of lab equipment is the number one constraint on what students can do in undergraduate optics labs. This past year, I reverse-engineered a used projector ($150 on eBay) and converted it into a spatial light modulator ($8000 from a laboratory supplier). The spatial light modulator can be used to demonstrate laser diffraction through a variety of gratings. In particular, I used gratings that convert a Gaussian laser mode into a “donut mode”–characterized by a dark spot in its center–that is used in optical tweezers to trap microscopic particles such as DNA strands. The spatial light modulator is a really versatile tool, like a Swiss army knife of optics research.

Erik Stout
I am interested in motor physiology–how our brains manage to control our body movements precisely and gracefully. To this end, I am involved in a variety of projects that investigate different aspects of this amazing neural system with Dr. Irina Beloozerova at the Barrow Neurological Institute. This year, I am training cats to play video games and control RC cars using only brain activity, and using computer-science techniques to figure out how the motor system deals with unexpected changes in the outside environment during movements (such as shifting rocks, or charging rhinos). I hope this research will one day lead to improved physical-therapy treatments after strokes or traumatic brain injuries, but I mostly do this research because it’s fun, exciting, and because I get to try things no one has ever done before.

For more information:

UA Students Named Goldwater Scholars,” University of Arizona news release, 04/18/2011

Four juniors win top national awards as up-and-coming scientists,” Arizona State University news release, 04/11/2011

Four UA Students Named Goldwater Scholars,” University of Arizona news release, 04/06/2010