Top of their Field

April 18, 2014

Amanda Nagy

Chemistry majors Holden Lai, left, a fourth-year double-degree student, and second-year student Sarel Loewus, are two of Oberlin’s Goldwater Scholarship winners. They are seen in front of the 400MHz NMR spectrometer in Oberlin’s chemistry department.
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones

For an undergraduate student majoring in mathematics, science, or engineering, the Goldwater Scholarship represents more than tuition assistance—it is considered the premier undergraduate award of its type in these fields. The scholarship program makes its selections based on academic merit, and the award attracts the attention of prestigious post-graduate fellowship programs, such as the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships.

This year, Oberlin counts three winners among the 283 undergraduate sophomores and juniors from the United States who have received Goldwater Scholarships for the 2014-2015 academic year: Holden Wan Hong Lai, Sarel Loewus, and Megan Michel.

Scholars were selected from a field of 1,166 mathematics, science, and engineering students who were nominated by the faculties of colleges and universities nationwide. The scholarship will help defray the cost of tuition, fees, books, and room and board up to a maximum of $7,500 per year.

The Goldwater Foundation is a federally endowed agency honoring former U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater, and the scholarship is designed to foster and encourage outstanding students to pursue careers in the fields of mathematics, the natural sciences, and engineering. Since the program was established in 1986, Oberlin College has averaged one to two recipients each year.

“The experiences students are getting at Oberlin, in terms of their curricular work and student-faculty research, are placing them at a highly competitive level nationally,” says Chemistry Professor Manish Mehta, who has served as Oberlin’s Goldwater Scholarship representative in past years. Mehta notes that it’s not often that a sophomore, like Sarel Loewus, wins a Goldwater award, even though sophomores may be nominated.

“Each institution nominates their four top science students, thus the national applicant pool is already very strong to begin with,” Mehta says. “This year's outcome of three winners is extraordinary.”

Holden Lai is a fourth-year double-degree student majoring in percussion performance, chemistry, and materials physics. Lai is currently doing research with Jesse Rowsell, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, on a project studying the design and synthesis of porous materials that have potential applications in catalysis and gas storage. Before joining Rowsell’s lab, Lai worked with Michael Nee, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and Professor John D. Roberts at CalTech, with whom he co-authored a paper in the Journal of Physical Chemistry.

Beginning this summer, Lai will start working on a joint materials research project with Rowsell and Stephen FitzGerald, professor of physics. Lai says he is interested in materials chemistry research and he plans to study physical organic chemistry in graduate school.

Lai, who is from San Francisco and will graduate in 2015, started studying percussion with contemporary music virtuosos Chris Froh and Florian Conzetti in San Francisco. He studies percussion with Professor Michael Rosen in the conservatory and he is a member of the Oberlin Percussion Group.

Sarel Loewus is a second-year biochemistry major from Pullman, Washington. This summer, she will do research with Professor Manish Mehta. Loewus says she is interested in structural biology and organic chemistry, particularly in the area of drug discovery. She plans to pursue a PhD in either chemistry or biochemistry, and her long-term goal is to become a chemistry professor in an academic research institution.

Loewus is a chemistry tutor and a student leader in OWLS (Oberlin Workshop and Learning Sessions) for Chemistry 102. She is a member of the varsity cross country and track teams.

Megan Michel, a third-year biology major with chemistry and history minors, has been working with Biology Professor Yolanda Cruz to develop her honors project. She is studying abroad this spring with the Oberlin-in-London program, and she plays on Oberlin’s women’s soccer team. Michel says she intends to pursue a PhD in disease ecology or paleopathology, and she hopes to perform research and teach at an undergraduate institution.

Michel also has been awarded a summer research internship through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s (HHMI) Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP). This summer Michel will work in the lab of HHMI scientist Matthew Warman at Boston Children's Hospital, and as part of her internship she will participate in a summer research experience at Harvard University.

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