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Undergraduate research leads to Goldwater Scholarships

April 08, 2009

The extensive undergraduate research opportunities at ASU continue to develop the scientists of tomorrow, with three ASU juniors having won Goldwater Scholarships, the nation’s highest undergraduate awards in science, math and engineering.

Joshua Niska and Charles “Ben” Strauber, biochemistry juniors, and Murdock Hart, a junior in physics, will receive $7,500 a year for up to two years. All are working with senior ASU faculty or with researchers at TGen and SiO2 Associates. Their projects range from breast cancer research to neuroscience to solar cell technology.

ASU students have won 43 Goldwater Scholarships in the last 16 years, placing ASU among the leading public universities. All of this year’s winners are in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Niska and Strauber also are enrolled in Barrett, the Honors College.

Hart started college four years ago after working for 10 years as a machinist in an automotive shop. Now 36, he brought an unusual combination of talent and ability to the lab of Nicole Herbots, emeritus professor of physics. He played an integral role in optimizing the equipment in the lab to have the capability to process 12-inch silicon wafers, and in synthesizing new ordered molecular oxide films.

He’s been working toward getting two silicon wafers to bond together using molecular oxides for medical implants, and to solve the problem of having to seal solar cells. Hart says his desire for a college education was sparked by the gift of a telescope seven years ago, which captured his imagination and led to a passion for learning more about science.

“Murdock is a rare find in the field of physics and research technology, combining an extensive experience, understanding and innate ability in hardware design with a deep conceptual curiosity,” says Professor Herbots. “In a unique approach, he blends his thoroughly practical, competent machine shop work and laboratory management skills with a very strong talent as a research physicist.

“He is in my opinion one of the best examples of what America’s free-spiritedness and ingenuity can produce as a researcher and physicist when this unique American ingenuity and drive is combined with a rigorous physics degree program.”

Niska, 21, has been doing biomedical research on brain and breast cancer at Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) for three and a half years, first as a volunteer and a TGen Helios Scholar and fellow, then as a fellow in the ASU School of Life Sciences Undergraduate Research Program. Currently he works about 15 hours a week on his own project, investigating the role of a gene/protein in breast cancer.

He is among only a few undergraduates chosen to present his research at the American Association of Cancer Research annual meetings in 2008 and 2009.

Since Niska also is interested in public health, he spent a month last summer in the Amazon region of Ecuador, exploring the community health care needs of indigenous peoples. The work will provide a basis for his honors thesis.

“Josh is a very bright and talented student, one of the best I have taught,” says Ian Gould, President’s Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “This is especially impressive in consideration of the time he spends in the research lab, doing high-quality research work. He also has been an enthusiastic teacher to junior high students in an outreach program.”

Heather Cunliffe, TGen investigator and adjunct faculty at ASU, says Niska is “without question, the most talented student I have ever interacted with. He is a delight to mentor. He truly is the ‘dream student’ that laboratories wish to have. There is no doubt in my mind that he will excel in the biomedical research field.”

Strauber, 21, came to ASU as a Flinn and a National Merit Scholar, and he soon discovered a dual passion for neuroscience and linguistics. Fascinated by the overlapping nature of these fields, he intends a career studying the neural basis of language, learning, and development.

Ben has completed several research projects abroad, allowing him to pursue his interests in neuroscience and language simultaneously. While studying in India for a semester, he worked in a molecular neuroscience lab at the Indian Institute of Technology. Last summer he spent in Japan, working at the National Institute of Genetics on a project in axonal patterning.

Currently he works 25 hours a week in the developmental neuroscience lab of Carsten Duch, associate professor in the School of Life Sciences. He is performing molecular tests to examine the dynamics of potassium channel regulation in neurons. His work has implications for understanding processes like synaptic plasticity and learning.

“Ben is unusually proactive, and he has actively sought top international research experiences,” says Duch. “Upon his return from Japan, he presented his project in an outstanding research seminar to my group. I was impressed by the academic rigor he applied to the interpretation of his results.

“Within a few weeks of starting his own research project in my lab, he has produced exciting data. His work has the potential for a publication in a high ranked peer review international journal. He is also a great pleasure to work with. I anticipate a great scientific future for him”

This year 278 Goldwater Scholars were selected on the basis of academic merit from a field of 1,097 mathematics, science, and engineering students nominated by the faculties of colleges and universities nationwide.