“People often think of math as numbers and calculations, but I think the research helps us to think of math more closely to art,” said Sam Auyeung.
For Auyeung, a junior mathematics major at Calvin College, math is about much more than just formulas and measurements. To him, it’s about exploration and discovery.
“There’s a lot of things that Professor [Jim] Turner and us students are finding out at the same time,” said Auyeung. “It’s ground that barely anyone has walked on yet. Mathematics is being developed as we are doing the research. That’s a genuine picture of what research should be like when we get to graduate school and beyond.”
And that type of research is happening across the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields at Calvin College. Auyeung says it’s a reason the college has earned distinction among its peers in the field of STEM research.
A gold standard
Earlier this month, Auyeung became the college’s 16th Goldwater Scholar since 2008—a number unmatched by any other undergraduate institution over that span of time. The award is considered by most to be the highest national award given to an undergraduate in science, mathematics and engineering.
“I’m grateful,” said Auyeung of receiving the prestigious honor. “I think it’s [Calvin’s track record of success] a testament to Calvin preparing their students well, particularly giving them opportunities outside of the classroom to pursue their careers, and I think that a lot of that stems from Calvin having this idea of vocation, so I’m glad that there’s this underlying philosophy.”
This year, a total of 260 Goldwater Scholarships were awarded from a nationwide pool of more than 1,200 mathematics, science and engineering nominees. The program is designed to foster and encourage outstanding students to pursue careers in those areas of study. Each of the Goldwater Scholars receives $7,500 to be used toward tuition, room and board, books and supplies.
Carolyn Anderson, a chemistry professor at Calvin who also serves as the college’s liaison with the Goldwater Foundation, says that the scholars “generally get into any of the grad schools they apply to. Period.”
Recent scholars at Calvin have gone on to grad school at MIT, UC-Berkeley, UNC and the University of Michigan, to name a few. Anderson also notes that a number of recent scholars are now funded at the graduate level by National Science Foundation fellowships, and 2011 grad Cheri Ackerman received a five-year, $250,000 fellowship from the Hertz Foundation toward her graduate studies.
Second to none
“This award puts our students head to head with the best students from the best institutions across the country, and when the dust settles our students end up at the top, every year,” said Anderson. “No question we have excellent students, but those students are getting excellent training and going on to do excellent work at elite institutions.”
Auyeung is researching with mathematics professor James Turner in the field of algebraic topology, using algebraic structure and different pools within algebra in order to understand the idea of topology—the mathematical study of shapes and properties of space.
“The topic they’ve been working on is bordering on things that a PhD thesis could be build off ultimately,” said Turner, of a team of three researchers that includes Auyeung. “What I was trying to do is give them the tools, just enough so that they could enter into the research from some perspective and he [Auyeung] was quite capable of picking up on it quickly and being able to work with it, building on the understanding he gained doing somewhat related research the prior summer.”
Anderson says the third party validation from national organizations like the Goldwater Foundation, Beckman Scholars Program, the National Science Foundation and others serves as further proof that the research experience at Calvin is second to none.
“We’re not playing second fiddle to anybody,” said Anderson. “The work being done here at Calvin is being recognized and students are recognized as being top notch across the country on a regular basis. It didn’t happen once, it happens consistently."
A Goldwater dynasty
Junior biochemistry majors Evans Lodge and Susan Hromada received honorable mention status from Goldwater in 2015, an honor Auyeung received last year.
Since 2008, a remarkable 28 of 31 nominations submitted by Calvin students to Goldwater have received recognition (16 scholars, 12 honorable mentions).