The Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship is the most prestigious undergraduate award of its type and recognizes the commitment and potential each winner has to make a significant contribution to science. WVU was the only University in the state to have a Goldwater Scholar this year.
Sophomore Tonia Ahmed and junior Jessica Carr bring the number of WVU’s Goldwater Scholars to 35. WVU has had at least one Goldwater Scholar in each of the past 20 years, except for 2008 and 2001, and has had two 10 times.
“We are so proud of these students,” said WVU President Jim Clements. “Being named a Goldwater Scholar puts them in the ranks of the best young scientists in the nation. Their achievement reflects their hard work and dedication as students, as well as excellent mentorship from exceptional faculty and staff here at WVU.”
The scholarship pays tribute to the former Arizona senator’s 56 years of service and leadership to the United States as both soldier and statesman through an endowed recognition program that encourages outstanding students to pursue careers as advanced scientists, mathematicians and engineers.
Click here for a list of WVU’s past Goldwater Scholars.
“We are extremely proud of Goldwater Scholarship winners, both students are doing upper level research with outstanding faculty mentors here at West Virginia University,” said Dr. Keith Garbutt, dean of the Honors College. “Our continued success with the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship at West Virginia University shows our students in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines can compete successfully with the best students in the country.”
Ahmed and Carr are two of 282 sophomore and junior mathematics, science and engineering majors from across the United States selected from 1,123 applications, and the only West Virginia residents, to win a Goldwater Scholarship this year.
Each scholarship covers the cost of undergraduate tuition, fees, books and room and board up to $7,500 annually.
Ahmed, a Morgantown native, had a jump start on her research career. Prior to even starting her freshman year at WVU, she was already working in a University lab.
She took a WVU organic chemistry class during her senior year of high school and immediately fell in love with the field. Afterwards, she asked the professor if she could join a University lab. In that lab, she worked to extract bio fuels from different wood products and corn.
When she officially started at WVU, she didn’t stay in the dorms because she lives in town, meaning she didn’t necessarily get the usual freshman-year experience, but that was OK with her.
But last summer, she studied at the California Institute of Technology, working on research with other students and lived in the dorms.
“I’ve spent a lot of my time doing research. Ever since the summer after my senior year of high school, I started doing research at WVU,” she said. “The thing that helped me the most was that I was able to take organic chemistry at WVU in my senior year.”
More recently, she has researched carbon-hydrogen bond activation in the fuels that we use on a daily basis. She is trying to find a way to break the hydrocarbon bonds and find other useful products, which would be useful in the pharmacy industry. She started this research at Cal Tech and continued it over the last semester and a half at WVU.
“Considering that Tonia has just completed her third semester at WVU, it is apparent from her academic and research accomplishments to date that she has an extremely bright future,” said chemistry professor Jeffrey Petersen. “I have no doubt as Tonia moves forward in her academic studies at WVU and beyond that she will enjoy a stellar career as a research scientist and scholar.”
When she finishes with her education, she wants to continue in that same setting as a research professor who teaches organic and inorganic chemistry.
“That way, I’m conducting my own research, it’s my own ideas and I can influence other graduate students and guide them to do the same thing,” she said. “Being a Goldwater Scholar definitely gives me a leg up to get in a better grad school, and it’s also a bit of a confidence boost in your ability.”
Ahmed, who will begin taking graduate-level courses in the fall, found out about the honor online while looking at the Goldwater website. She saw her name just minutes before receiving the mailed package from the organization.
“This honor really satisfied my concerns of, ‘am I good enough?’ They selected me from a lot of candidates. I should be able to do it,” she said.
Carr, a Fairmont native, opened up her mailbox on March 30 to a large white envelope. She knew exactly what it was.
A year ago, she received a not-so-similar smaller envelope in the mail from the Goldwater Foundation saying she wasn’t a recipient.
This year, however, was different.
“I was so excited about it that I gave myself a paper cut trying to open it,” Carr said, laughing. “My first emotion was relief, because I had so much pent up excitement and nervousness. Everyone I talked to told me, ‘now you can go to just about any graduate school you want,’ and that’s when I took a step back and realized what it all meant.”
Carr started as a chemistry major with the intention to become a pharmacist. However, she wanted more experience in her undergraduate classes and decided to scrap that career path and double major in chemistry and math. She will attend graduate school for research.
“I have a lot of determination to succeed in everything I do. I’m driven by finding the most challenging thing and trying to be the best at it,” Carr said. “Initially that’s what got me involved most in the chemistry major. It was challenging and takes a lot of patience.”
She hopes to work in a government lab or private industry in the future doing environmental chemistry, which will allow her to lead her own research team. Currently, she is researching materials that have applications in both medicine and catalysis, the latter of which can control pollution and the long-term effects it has on the environment.
“Jessica is truly an exceptional student who is only beginning to realize the excitement that comes with scientific discovery,” Petersen said. “On the basis of her outstanding academic record and in view of her genuine enthusiasm for the pursuit of knowledge, I am certain that she has the potential to develop into a highly successful and productive research scientist.”
Last summer, Carr had a summer internship with the National Institute of Standards and Technology in which she worked on a project involving radioactivity and learned how to protect yourself when working with something as potentially dangerous as radioactivity.
She worked on developing an analytical technique for environmental samples to try to determine what and how much radioactive chemicals are in environmental samples.
Carr became interested in research in the summer prior to her sophomore year during a research internship in China. Later that year, she joined her first research lab at WVU one that she has worked at since. In addition, Carr is also the vice president of the WVU Habitat for Humanity student organization.
“I grew up on a small farm, and I’ve always had an interest in being outdoors and playing in the dirt. That allowed me to start thinking of questions about why things are the way they are. In high school, I didn’t particularly enjoy chemistry as a subject, but when I saw where it could go, I think it meshed with my interests.”
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