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4 juniors win top national awards as up-and-coming scientists

April 11, 2011

Four remarkable ASU juniors who already are doing sophisticated research and presenting their work to national audiences have won Goldwater Scholarships, the nation’s premier awards for undergraduates studying science, math and engineering.

Working in the laboratories of ASU senior faculty and scientists at the Barrow Neurological Institute, each of the four will receive $7,500 a year for up to two years.

Their work ranges from brain cancer research to the creation of less expensive solar cells for producing electricity and fuel.

Recipients are Erik Stout of Ahwatukee, majoring in biochemistry and economics; John Ingraham of Scottsdale, majoring in biochemistry and applied mathematics; Michael Kenney of Ahwatukee, a chemistry major; and Brian Perea of Denver, Colo., a chemical engineering major.

Stout, Ingraham and Kenney are in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, while Perea is in the Fulton Schools of Engineering. All four are enrolled in Barrett, the Honors College.

ASU students have won 51 Goldwater Scholarships in the last 18 years, placing ASU among the leading public universities. All four of ASU’s nominees were selected this year, repeating last year’s sweep.

Stout is such a stellar student that he began working at Barrow while still in high school, and was offered a paid position as a research assistant when he was just 17. He does research on how the brain controls the body, and how our bodies compensate for the challenges that occur, such as uneven terrain, inclines and shifting ground.

He has presented his research at several meetings of the Society for Neuroscience and is co-author of two research reports published in the Journal of Physiology and the Journal of Neurophysiology.

Stout, who came to ASU as a Flinn Scholar, also has mentored a high school student in the lab for a year and a half. 

“Erik is still in the middle of his undergraduate studies, but in research he performs at the level of an advanced graduate student,” said Irina Beloozerova, director of the laboratory of motor systems neurophysiology at Barrow. “In my 25 years of experience working with students in an academic research setting, he is the best student I’ve met.”

Ingraham is doing brain cancer research at Barrow in the neurosurgery research laboratory, in collaboration with ASU math faculty. He is working to develop better mathematical models of brain tumor invasion, with the hope of better understanding how tumors infiltrate and what treatment strategies might be most effective.

Glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) is the most common and most deadly of cancers of the brain, especially difficult to treat because the tumor cells tend to migrate along the nerve fibers of the brain.

“Our goal is to see whether it might be possible to make short-term predictions of the growth of GBM tumors in individual patients,” said Eric Kostelich, professor in the ASU School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences. “We’re a long way from this goal, but John’s work has helped us establish that our basic mathematical models of tumor growth and spread can reproduce at least qualitatively the patterns of spread that are seen in certain patients.”

Ingraham, who also is a Flinn Scholar, will present his work at a national 2011 Computational Science and Engineering conference.

Perea, a National Hispanic Scholar who chose ASU because of the undergraduate research opportunities, was accepted into the Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative as a freshman.

His research tries to develop techniques to understand and control the structures formed for anticipated applications in “smart” materials. These so-called “smart” materials are capable of reversibly changing properties depending on environmental conditions. They are highly sought after for application in developing technologies.

He already has published his research in a peer-reviewed publication and has presented at a national meeting of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.

“Many students in Ph.D. programs are not co-authors on publications until their second or third year of graduate school,” said Mary Laura Lind, assistant professor of engineering. “It is very impressive that Brian has already been able to perform high quality research that has passed the rigorous test of scientific peer review.”

“Brian certainly excels in his role as an undergraduate researcher,” said Lenore L. Dai, chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering. “I have never met any undergraduate who is so talented, innovative and outstanding in research since I became a faculty member in 2002.”

Kenney’s research is focused on making solar cells cheaper to produce, by trying to create new dyes and polymers for cell production that are as efficient as silicon-based solar cells. Along with several ASU professors, he is part of a team that wants to convert sunlight into electricity and fuel, and to make using organic solar cells as cheap as burning fossil fuels.

Kenney also was chosen for a 10-week NSF-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates program at Carnegie Mellon University last summer, and this summer he will go to Caltech to do nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy.

“Michael is interested in and has ability in a variety of areas of science, which will allow him to tackle important technological problems in society which can only be solved via a multidisciplinary approach,” said Devens Gust, Foundation Professor of Chemistry. “Finding a student with such a breadth of interest and ability at such an early stage of development is unusual.”

Kenney also acts as a mentor to an Obama Scholar, a freshman chemistry student who is the first person in his family to attend college.

This year 275 Goldwater Scholars were selected on the basis of academic merit from a field of 1,095 mathematics, science, and engineering students nominated by the faculties of colleges and universities nationwide.