April 29, 2009 | Myrna Anderson

This year's Goldwater Scholars

Luke Leisman, a 20-year-old sophomore physics major and astronomy minor from Ada, Mich., researches a Brightest Cluster Galaxy, which is the brightest galaxy amid a cluster of galaxies.

Alexandra Cok, a 20-year old biochemistry major from Rochester, N.Y., studies glut 1, a glucose transporter in mammalian cells. “We’re trying to figure out what activates it and how,” said Cok.

Sarah Tasker, a 20-year old junior chemistry major from Grand Rapids, is working on a specific molecule found in pharmaceutically active compounds.

Tim Ferdinands, 21, a junior mathematics major, researches questions on the Complex Plane and the Dual Plane.

And Melissa Haegert, 20, a physics major from Ndungu Kebbeh in Gambia, West Africa, loves the “explain-ability” of her research: “I study how space rocks (read “asteroids”) spin,” Haegert said.

Five for five

Each of the five students at the table—Leisman, Cok, Tasker, Ferdinands and Haegert—is a recipient of a prestigious Goldwater Scholarship from the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation. Together they are the largest contingent of Goldwater Scholars ever to study at Calvin.

The Goldwater foundation accepts only four applications from an institution per year. Typically, Calvin has one or two Goldwater Scholars, but this year all four applicants were accepted. Haegert, Calvin’s sole Goldwater Scholar last year, renewed her award this year.

“I think it’s just a question of statistics and probabilities,” she explained the five scholarships. “I study these things.”

Calvin biology professor and Goldwater coordinator Rich Nyhof had a different take on the multiple awards: "It reflects very favorably on the quality of students as well as the preparation they get here at Calvin.”

From many disciplines

The Goldwater Scholarships, named for former U.S. senator Barry Goldwater, were established by Congress in 1986 to fund students studying the traditional sciences, mathematics and engineering. Each Goldwater Scholar is awarded $7,500 for each of two successive years to help with tuition, fees, books and room and board.

The fact that the Calvin’s Goldwater winners represent four different disciplines—physics, chemistry, biochemistry and mathematics—is a great compliment to Calvin’s overall excellence in the sciences, Nyhof said: “It isn’t just a strength in one specific area among the sciences, but representative of the students we attract as a whole.”

What attracted Leisman to Calvin were the research opportunities, which he compared to those found at larger research universities: “You’re doing work that grad students would be doing at other colleges and universities,” Leisman said.

Right next door

The scholars, who research in adjacent labs and who socialize with each other—particularly during the summer—enjoy the collegiality that comes with the work: “I think it’s the best environment possible because it introduces you into a world where colleagues are right next door,” Haegert said.

The students also enjoy getting to know their faculty research mentors: “You’re more invested because they’re invested in you,” said Leisman, who works with physics professor Deborah Haarsma.

Research also includes professional opportunities such as presenting at professional conferences, said Tasker. “We get around,” she joked. “We get papers published.” In addition to being a Goldwater Scholar, Tasker is Calvin’s first Beckman Scholar. Cok is the second.

Careers in research

The Goldwaters were created to encourage students to purpose academic careers in the sciences, Nyhof said: “This is specifically for students interested in a career in research or teaching, and it’s assumed that the student will go on to a graduate program.”

All of Calvin’s Goldwater Scholars plan to do just that: “The fact that I can be playing a part in just discovering something … to be part of the conversation and push forward is just really exciting to me,” said Leisman.

The Goldwater five

Recent stories