Two New College of Florida students, one using algebraic geometry to study cancer and another identifying ways to help white blood cells fight disease, have been awarded Goldwater Scholarships, the premier U.S. undergraduate award recognizing students showing potential to make significant contributions to mathematics, science and engineering.
Timothy Duff and Jonas Slackman are among just 271 students nationwide – and just five at Florida colleges– to be named a 2013 Goldwater Scholar. Awards went to students at 171 colleges, of which only 71 had multiple recipients.
Duff, from Tampa, Fla., is a third-year student concentrating in mathematics. He is working with Prof. Pat McDonald on topics in algebraic geometry and statistics.
“To me, many of the most interesting and relevant mathematical problems come from biology,” Duff said. Classical methods in statistics are useless for some modern biological problems, but lately algebraic geometry has been discovered as useful in reinterpreting those problems.
“Most of the field has concentrated primarily on computational genomics and phylogenetic inference – I’m interested to know how far the methods can extend to other problems of molecular biology,” he said.
Duff was introduced to computational problems in biology in his first year at New College, and his advisor connected him for a summer internship at Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute in New Mexico. In two summers there, he worked on computational problems related to lung cancer and has two papers in statistics and cancer genomics being published.
This summer, he plans to study computational algebraic geometry at University of California at Berkeley, with a goal of teaching and conducting research at the university level.
Slackman, from Roanoke, Va., is a third-year student concentrating in biology and natural sciences and studying cell biology with advisor Prof. Amy Clore. He is looking at ways to make white-blood cells, or macrophages, more effective at attacking and destroying bacteria, and investigating the role of an enzyme known as PNPase in neutralizing damaged RNA.
He spent summer 2011 shadowing infectious disease specialists Dr. Thomas Kerkering and Charles Schleupner at Carilion Clinic in his hometown. He observed patients, learned about infections and studied the physiological processes of the diseases. “I found that I preferred studying interactions between hosts and diseases, rather than attending rounds,” he said. That led him to beginning immunology research at Florida Atlantic University.
He spent last summer at the Charles Schmidt School of Medicine at Florida Atlantic University. He worked in the laboratory of Dr. Yoshimi Shibata investigating the role of an enzyme that helps protect bacteria from macrophages.
This summer he will return to FAU to examine ways of activating macrophages. That can allow them to more quickly consume bacteria without triggering apoptosis, a sort of preventive self-destruct mechanism that is linked to inflammatory diseases. Slackman hopes his work will lead to a cure for diseases viewed as incurable, like colitis.
His long-term goal is to attain a doctoral degree in immunology and teach and conduct research at the university level.
The 2013 Goldwater recipients were chosen from a field of 1,107 students nominated by the faculties of their colleges. Of the 271 recipients, 27 are majoring in mathematics, 159 in sciences, 71 in engineering and 14 in computer science.
New College’s previous Goldwater recipient, 2012 graduate Cody Gunton, is a doctoral candidate in mathematics at The University of Arizona.
The Goldwater Foundation was founded in 1986 with the purpose of helping provide the country with a continuing source of highly qualified scientists, mathematicians, and engineers by assisting college students who intend to pursue careers in these fields. It was created to honor Sen. Barry Goldwater for his service as a soldier and legislator.
The scholarships are awarded to sophomores and juniors who plan to pursue research-oriented careers in mathematics, science and engineering. Since they were first awarded in 1989, there have been more than 6,550 recipients, who have gone on to win 80 Rhodes Scholarships, 118 Marshall Awards, 110 Churchill Scholarships and other awards.
The scholarships can be for one or two years, and cover the costs of tuition, fees, books and room and board up to $7,500 a year.