Five for five
In historic sweep, all of KU’s Goldwater applicants win the coveted undergraduate fellowship
A March announcement on the Barry Goldwater Scholarships brought news that a school-record five Jayhawks had won the nation’s premier undergraduate award for excellence in science, engineering and math—and set off some back-channel inquiries by KU administrators to confirm what they were seeing was real.
“We kept refreshing our screens on the application portal as the announcements were updated,” recalls Phillip Drake, faculty fellow in the Office of Fellowships. “It took a couple of hours to verify there wasn’t a hack, because [the outcome] was so unexpected.”
KU joins Columbia University, Dartmouth College, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan as the only schools to receive the maximum five scholarships for the 2022-’23 academic year. The awardees, all juniors, are Bryce Gaskins, biochemistry and Spanish major; Jessica Miears, physics and astronomy; Sarah Noga, biochemistry; Mary Sevart, chemical engineering; and Kade Townsend, microbiology.
The five are among 417 students nationwide to receive the Goldwater, which provides up to $7,500 annually for tuition, fees, books and room and board. An estimated 5,000 sophomores and juniors apply for the scholarship each year, according to the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation, which established the award in 1989 to honor former Sen. Barry M. Goldwater.
“It speaks to the quality of academic excellence, innovative research accomplishments and just sheer resilience of our nominees. Our students are just extraordinary,” says Drake, who is an associate professor and director of graduate studies for the English department in addition to his role helping students hone their applications for highly competitive national fellowships. “But I think it also speaks to a very robust advising structure. That’s coordinated by the Office of Fellowships, but it also involves individual faculty advisers and the Goldwater internal committee.”
“We’re absolutely thrilled this year to receive five Goldwater Scholarships, and I’m happy to be able to celebrate with our outstanding recipients,” Chancellor Doug Girod said. “Each of them has demonstrated a remarkable capacity to come up with new ways to tackle some of our planet’s greatest challenges.”
Indeed, all five scholars plan careers in academia that build on the impressive undergraduate research they’re already exploring at KU.
Gaskins conducts research in the lab of Zarko Boskovic, assistant professor of medicinal chemistry. He plans to pursue a doctorate in organic chemistry and then teach at a university, focusing his research on organic and synthetic chemistry.
Miears conducts research with David Besson, professor of physics. She plans to earn a doctorate and focus her academic career on astroparticle physics and on helping students from nontraditional backgrounds pursue their interest in the field.
Noga will enter a biotechnology PhD program to conduct drug development research. A member of the Slusky Lab, led by Joanna Slusky, associate professor of molecular biosciences, Noga is a key researcher in projects aiming to inhibit a protein involved in antibiotic resistance.
Sevart, who is testing lab manager at the KU Biodiesel Initiative, run by Susan Williams, Charles E. and Mary Jane Spahr Professor of Engineering, plans to pursue a doctorate in chemical engineering and focus her research on lessening the world’s dependence on fossil fuels.
Townsend will devote his academic career to bacterial genetics research. He is a member of the Chandler Lab, led by Josephine Chandler, associate professor of molecular biosciences, who studies antibiotic-resistant pathogens.
Building a solid foundation to someday turn those ambitious goals into achievements is the real value of applying for scholarships like the Goldwater, Rhodes and Churchill, Drake believes.
“We have a motto, of sorts, that we’re focused on process rather than outcomes,” he says. As nice as it is to go five for five and set a KU record for Goldwater success, “what’s much more important to the Office of Fellowships is that the experience was valuable to the students. They learn about themselves. They learn to craft essays that later become graduate school statements; they identify skills and experiences and develop relationships that benefit them further down the line.
“It’s kind of a launching point for them to expand academically, professionally and as people.”
Photograph by Steve Puppe