April 01, 2014 | Matt Kucinski

Abigail Leistra is Calvin’s 15th Goldwater Scholar since 2008.

Abigail Leistra is Calvin’s 15th Goldwater Scholar since 2008—a number unmatched by any other liberal arts college over that span of time. The award is considered by most to be the highest national award given to undergraduates in science, mathematics and engineering.

“This honor really is a testament to the strength of Calvin College's research program,” said Leistra, a junior biochemistry and chemical engineering double major.

A track record in research

Leistra is researching in chemistry professor Kumar Sinniah's research group—a group that's had four Goldwater Scholars since 2006. Their research team is developing methods to deliver drug molecules such as chemotherapeutic drugs to tumor sites while minimizing the drug interaction at healthy sites, thereby minimizing side-effects.

“I have been tremendously blessed to have some very talented students,” said Sinniah. “These awards recognize the importance of research at the undergraduate level and have the potential to motivate current and future students to seek research opportunities early on. These awards also highlight the support provided by the administration for undergraduate research, which is one of our strategic goals.”

The group's research is being done in collaboration with scientists from the University of Michigan. And Leistra is a first co-author of a publication that was recently published in the Journal of Physical Chemistry and she is currently working on another publication.

“I was blessed with the opportunity to join professor Sinniah’s lab group and have learned so much over the past two years working alongside him," said Leistra. “Receiving the award validates the work being done on this project and encourages me to continue doing my best in it.”  

Consistently among the elite

Leistra is not the only Calvin student to be honored by the Goldwater Foundation this year. Senior mathematics and chemistry double major Andrea Bootsma and junior mathematics major Sam Auyeung received Goldwater honorable mention status. And, since 2008, 25 of the 28 nominations submitted by Calvin students have received recognition (15 scholars, 10 honorable mentions).

“I believe that it suggests that Calvin has as many truly top tier students who are fully engaged in undergraduate research as even the most elite PUIs,” said Carolyn Anderson, a chemistry professor at Calvin. “It also speaks to our faculty’s investment in these students, both as research mentors but also in shepherding them through the award application processes.”

The Goldwater awards come just weeks after the college was chosen as one of just 12 institutions in the country to be awarded a Beckman Scholars Program, which handsomely funds in-depth research experiences for four students in biology, biochemistry or chemistry over the next three years.

“These two programs are two of the top awards given to undergraduates in the sciences. Neither is given to students who are anything less than excellent,” said Anderson. “That Calvin and our students have been recognized by both of these organizations repeatedly suggests that all of the good work that we are doing here isn’t going unnoticed by the broader community. Everyone agrees that our students are exceptional and the training they are getting is superb.”

This year, a total of 283 Goldwater Scholarships were awarded from a nationwide pool of 1,166 mathematics, science and engineering nominees. The program was designed to foster and encourage outstanding students to pursue careers in those areas of study. Each of the Goldwater Scholars will receive $7,500 to be used toward tuition, room and board, books and supplies.

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