Three students from Case Western Reserve University, including two from the College of Arts and Sciences, have received the prestigious Barry Goldwater Scholarship, joining an elite community of scholars who have been honored for their potential in research.
This award is bestowed upon undergraduates who have a demonstrated interest in research in the fields of mathematics, natural sciences or engineering and show potential to make impacts in their fields.
Students go through a rigorous nomination process, as the university can only designate up to four applicants a year. This year, Zahin Islam, Daniel Shao and Evan Vesper were among 396 recipients around the U.S. to receive the award, selected from 1,343 nominees representing 461 institutions.
Those selected for the scholarship receive up to $7,500 per academic year to go toward tuition, room and board, books and other expenses. The scholarship is open to students in their sophomore or junior years.
The award, established by Congress in 1986, is named in honor of Sen. Barry Goldwater, who served in the Senate for 30 years.
Major: Systems biology
Minor: Computer science
Working in systems biology often involves facing daunting data sets full of numbers and values that, to the untrained eye, may seem unrelated. But to researchers like Zahin Islam, they tell a story—one that just needs to be uncovered. That’s what Islam finds most rewarding about the field.
“It’s kind of like trying to find the figurative needle in the haystack,” he said.
Systems biology melded together his three academic interests: biology, mathematics and computer science.
Islam’s work is based in HIV research, and a protein that may be able to mask it in the body. Though he wasn’t certain what he wanted to study when he first arrived at CWRU, he knew he was interested in applications in immunology and infectious disease. With researchers at CWRU who have built solid reputations in HIV research, that seemed like a perfect fit for him.
In addition to his work in the lab, Islam has found other ways to dive into his passion for health care and the scientific process through other on-campus involvements, which include the experiental learning organization Shadowing Case-by-Case and the university’s undergraduate research journal, Discussions.
For Islam, taking the time to reflect upon his research and studies during the Goldwater Scholarship application process was particularly valuable. It offered him the chance to step back and look at what he had done, what he plans to do, and effectively communicate his efforts on both fronts.
Looking ahead, Zahin hopes to enter a MD/PhD program focused on computational biology following a gap year.
Majors: Computer science and biology
An introductory computer science course taken for fun completely altered Daniel Shao’s career path. While he had come to Case Western Reserve as a pre-med student, by the end of his sophomore year, he had picked up a computer science major, shifting gears to go full force in a new direction.
But even though he no longer intends to pursue a career in the medical field, his work does have relevant applications. Working in the Center for Computational Imaging and Personalized Diagnostics, Shao’s research is focused on predicting disease outcome by using machine learning to analyze the pathology of cancerous breast tissue.
Through this research, Shao has found value not only in getting results, but also in being able to explain their biological implications. As he looks toward graduation, he plans to pursue a PhD in computer science and spend his career tackling problems in the medical field, allowing him to make a difference while applying his own creative ideas.
“It’s such an amazing way to make an impact,” he said.
Shao has made contributions on campus in a variety of ways, including as a resident assistant, a team lead with Design for America, and a board member for the new Undergraduate Research Society.
The Goldwater Scholarship provided extra reassurance that he made the right choice in switching his career focus.
“I’ve done research for four years in various biology fields and I was really set on pre-med, so this is a huge change,” Shao said. “I loved my biology research so it was a really scary leap, but I definitely think what I’m doing now is the right path for me.”
Major: Electrical engineering; BS/MS program in biomedical engineering
Minors: Biomedical engineering and French
As a prospective student, Evan Vesper was drawn to Case Western Reserve after learning about Professor Dustin Tyler’s work on restoring the sense of touch to those who have lost limbs. Now, Vesper’s research at the university has similar aims.
Working in the Motion Study Lab within the Advanced Platform Technology Center at the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center, Vesper’s research involves rehabilitation for individuals with amputations, specifically in restoring lower-limb function.
As part of his research in the lab, Vesper has used electrical stimulation to residual nerves to help veterans who use prosthetics have improved balance and more natural experiences.
Vesper got his start in a lab setting while still in high school, contributing to research on improving the use of mouse models in experiments. Then, once he arrived at CWRU, he gained experience in a polymer engineering lab.
But when he connected with researchers at Cleveland VA Medical Center, he knew he found his niche.
“I kind of think of the first two lab experiences as guiding me toward what I wanted to do,” Vesper said.
In addition to his work in the lab, Vesper is actively involved elsewhere in the undergraduate research community at CWRU, including with the Global Health Design Collaborative and the university’s undergraduate research journal, Discussions.
After completing his undergraduate degree, Vesper hopes to continue his education with a PhD in neural engineering after completing the BS/MS program in the biomedical engineering department.
Vesper is grateful for the Goldwater Scholarship and the community of scholars with which it comes.