On Becoming a Scholar

Washington University undergraduate students carry out significant research and, as a result, earn prestigious awards and scholarships.

Akhila Narla, Arts & Sciences Class of ’12, studies the intersection of environmental biology and public health. For her undergraduate research on emerging tick-borne bacterial disease, she received a Udall Scholarship. (David Kilper)

Year after year, as they vie for national scholarships where just reaching the finals is an achievement, Washington University’s young scholars continue to prevail.

In 2010, three undergraduates won Goldwater Scholarships; another captured a Udall Scholarship; and the university’s fourth undergraduate woman in a row won an Astronaut Scholar Award. In July, it was announced that nine Arts & Sciences seniors and six graduate students secured Fulbright Scholarships for the 2010–11 academic year. (In December, the university was named by the Chronicle of Higher Education as one of the top producers of Fulbright Scholarships in the nation. Washington University was one of only 11 institutions ranked as a top producer of both Fulbright students and Fulbright faculty; see http://news.wustl.edu/news/Pages/20933.aspx.)

“Each year is different, and a host of factors beyond our control affect the outcomes,” says Joy Kiefer, an assistant dean in the College of Arts & Sciences, director of Undergraduate Research, and adviser for 12 of the 13 national scholarships that require internal nominations. “Our students consistently advance to the final stage — and certainly some win.”

Winners and finalists aside, the mentored application process itself is valuable. Students emerge equipped to write effective fellowship and grant applications, to communicate clearly about their research and their goals, and to answer questions with aplomb in the rarefied ambience of interview panels.

“It’s a powerful process of self-discovery,” Kiefer says. “The undergraduates who come through my office are to be congratulated for their exceptional talent — and their very hard work.” (For news of Washington University’s latest Rhodes Scholar, see http://magazine.wustl.edu/2010/december/Pages/RhodesScholar.aspx.)

Morris K. Udall Scholarship winner, 2010–11

Akhila Narla, Arts & Sciences Class of ’12

Major: Environmental Studies

Udall Scholarships are granted to students who demonstrate a commitment to fields related to the environment and also to Native American or native Alaskan students in fields related to health-care and tribal public policy.

Although Akhila Narla’s high school counselor did say Washington University offers “a lot of good scholarships,” Narla was overjoyed to receive four major awards. One of the latest is a Udall Scholarship, which has already allowed her to meet fellow scholars nationwide.

When a new program in environmental biology begins at the university in fall 2011, she will declare her major in the field; her minor is in public health. Thanks to undergraduate research at the intersection of both disciplines, Narla is amassing technical skills essential to her future work as a physician, social justice advocate and researcher on behalf of the community.

GIS technology is one tool Narla uses to assist biology Professor Jonathan Chase, PhD, and former postdoctoral student Brian Allan, PhD, in studying an emerging tick-borne bacterial disease called human ehrlichiosis, which is treatable with antibiotics but can cause fever, rashes and sometimes death. She and a group traveled to 40 different parks in Missouri to collect ticks, producing data for a GIS map. The map quantifies spatially available information, such as the percentage of land cover for each park. The map also outlines host, vector and pathogen data in order to determine relationships among environmental variables.

Narla explains the public-health intervention that should follow when the disease risk is understood: “Public warning signs can be displayed at high-risk places or [a substance] can be used around deer feeders to deter ticks from attaching to deers and transmitting disease.”

Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship winner, 2010–11

Adeetee Bhide, Arts & Sciences Class of ’11

Major: Biology

Considered one of the most prestigious awards for undergraduates planning careers in the sciences, engineering or mathematics, the Goldwater award covers as much as $7,500 annually toward tuition, fees and books in the junior or senior year.

Adeetee Bhide’s decision to attend Washington University had a lot to do with its reputation for its academic rigor, as well as for being “so much fun” and offering “great extracurriculars.” This spirited approach to her college career complements her intense intellectual focus — and suggests the zest and creativity behind her achievements. Through the pre-freshman Summer Scholars Program in Biology and Biomedical Research, Bhide studied hearing loss in the lab of Jianxin Bao, PhD, research associate professor of otolaryngology. Next, in the neurology lab of Professor Joel Perlmutter, PhD, she sought subtleties affecting diagnoses of and treatments for Parkinson’s disease.

Around the time she received the Goldwater Scholarship (in her unassuming way she hopes it will help her “get into graduate school”), Bhide discovered the fascination of cognitive neuroscience and joined the neuroimaging lab of Bradley Schlaggar, PhD, the A. Ernest & Jane G. Stein Associate Professor of Neurology. In his lab, Bhide worked closely with mentor Kelly Barnes, a postdoctoral research scholar, who has been invaluable in helping Bhide design her experiment and begin writing her thesis.

Bhide had found her calling in a language acquisition class, where she asked her professor whether children, like adults, read words with transposed letters (scuh as tehse wrods) relatively easily. With this, a research idea was born. After study to create a scientifically testable question, months of experiment design and a summer of testing more than 60 adults and children, Bhide will describe her data in her honors thesis.

“I was meant to do research!” she says. “I’m eager to show the world that cognitive neuroscience can contribute to education — and through my research to provide concrete examples of how it can be done.”

Biology major Adeetee Bhide, Arts & Sciences Class of ’11, received a Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, which is one of the most prestigious awards for undergraduates planning careers in the sciences, engineering or mathematics. (David Kilper)

Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship winner, 2010–11

Robert Perkins, Arts & Sciences Class of ’11

Majors: Physics and Chemistry

In many ways, Rob Perkins’ academic career is an interdisciplinary tour de force. In his freshman year, Perkins received a performance award from the physics department, but his goal is to pursue advanced chemistry. On the other hand, his undergraduate research is primarily related to physics, “although recently we’re looking more into the chemical side of things.” This crosscutting research began when physics Professor James Buckley, PhD — from whom he had just taken an electronics lab course — suggested that Perkins join the research lab of Viktor Gruev, PhD, assistant professor of computer science and engineering, because it combined physics and electronics. “I thought that sounded interesting!” Perkins says.

Working with researchers on both the Danforth and Medical campuses, the group is developing imaging sensors on specialized cameras to catch light’s invisible polarization property, allowing investigators to extract the information by computer. The researchers use aluminum nanowires for optical devices but are exploring organic molecules that can be similarly aligned. Introducing that work to one of his chemistry labs, Perkins is synthesizing a molecule that will act like a nanowire, absorbing light based on its elongated shape and its electronic structure.

Perkins has not picked his PhD research focus yet, but an area of interest is organic synthesis of naturally occurring molecules.

Studying both physics and chemistry, Robert Perkins, Arts & Sciences Class of ’11, is also a recent recipient of a Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship. (David Kilper)

Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship winner, 2010–11

Timothy Wiser, Arts & Sciences Class of ’11

Majors: Physics and Mathematics

When Tim Wiser took mathematics and introductory physics his freshman year (“The courses were just great!”), he was intrigued by the way the subjects built on each other. His research in progress with theoretical physicist Michael Ogilvie, PhD, reflects that interplay.

Armed with a chalkboard, Goldwater and Compton scholarships, plus excitement about soon beginning his PhD and becoming a theoretical physicist, Wiser is revisiting an old statistical mechanical model, Z(3), of quantum mechanics. He and Ogilvie, professor of physics, are considering it from the new perspective of PT (parity-time, or, space-time reflection) symmetry. PT symmetry is an alternative formulation of quantum mechanics that Washington University physics Professor Carl M. Bender, PhD, spearheaded. Involved in Wiser’s and Ogilvie’s work with Z(3) is an assumption to address the difficulty that when certain phenomena are calculated at desirable non-zero density, the algorithm used for simulation ceases to work. Once a certain established requirement on a physical system is lifted, however, other approaches can be used to solve the problem.

In summer 2010, Wiser solved the system exactly in one dimension. “Of course, one dimension is not that interesting,” he says, “but that’s the only dimension in which you can ever hope to solve anything exactly.” His goal now is to understand a slightly more complicated model he and Ogilvie developed, although it lacks an exact solution. “There may or may not be one,” Wiser says. “We also want to understand it in higher dimensions, and that requires some heftier techniques.”

With aspirations of becoming a theoretical physicist, Tim Wiser, Arts & Sciences Class of ’11, was the third recipient of a Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship this year. (David Kilper)

Astronaut Scholarship winner, 2010–11

Kaitlin Burlingame, Engineering Class of ’11

Major: Mechanical Engineering

Awarded by the Astronaut Scholar Foundation established by Mercury Astronauts in 1984, this $10,000 scholarship is the largest monetary award in the United States for undergraduate science and engineering students based solely on merit.

“Producing a product” and figuring out precisely how devices work are what Katie Burlingame loves about mechanical engineering. She not only revels in her results-centered field, she has assembled a college career loaded with excellent outcomes.

Burlingame holds a four-year Langsdorf Fellowship, a McKelvey Scholarship, NASA’s MUST (Motivating Undergraduates in Science and Technology) Scholarship and an Astronaut Scholarship, “which opens a whole range of opportunities.” An A+ student in her most demanding classes, according to Philip Bayly, PhD, chair of mechanical engineering and materials science, Burlingame participated for three years in the Air Force Research Laboratory’s University Nanosatellite Program. Her team built small lab satellites to navigate in close proximity and dock and release. She became flight operations lead in her junior year.

Now part of NASA’s Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program, Burlingame and four classmates tested their solution to an actual NASA design problem as a pilot flew parabolas in a modified Boeing 727 at Houston’s Johnson Space Center. The up-and-down flight paths created reduced-gravity and hyper-gravity conditions. The students plan further experiments in spring 2011.

Burlingame will enter industry to develop needed technological innovations — after completing a joint specialty degree in 2012 that will add an MS in biomedical engineering.

Kaitlin Burlingame, Engineering Class of ’11, was awarded an Astronaut Scholarship by the Astronaut Scholar Foundation. The scholarship is the largest monetary award in the U.S. for undergraduate science and engineering students. (David Kilper)

Judy H. Watts is a freelance writer based in St. Louis and a former editor of this magazine.


Leave a Comment

Comments and respectful dialogue are encouraged, but content will be moderated. Please, no personal attacks, obscenity or profanity, selling of commercial products, or endorsements of political candidates or positions. We reserve the right to remove any inappropriate comments. We also cannot address individual medical concerns or provide medical advice in this forum.