Two Students Named Goldwater Scholars, Two Receive Honorable Mention

UH Chemistry and Physics/Mathematics Majors Face Intense Competition to Earn Prestigious Distinctions

With sights set on advanced science degrees and careers in pioneering research, four University of Houston (UH) students now have the highest honor they can garner for undergraduate research in their academic repertoire.

Nicholas Eastham, a junior chemistry major, and Thomas Markovich, a junior physics and mathematics double major, have been named Barry M. Goldwater Scholars for the 2011-2012 academic year. Mason Biamonte, a sophomore physics and mathematics double major, and Abdulrahman Ibrahim, a junior chemistry major, received honorable mentions.

One of the most prestigious awards available to undergraduate students, the Goldwater Scholarship provides funding to sophomore and junior students majoring in mathematics, the natural sciences or engineering who plan to pursue a career in research. It was established by Congress to honor the late Sen. Barry M. Goldwater, and recipients are chosen on the basis of academic merit. Two other UH students have previously been named Goldwater Scholars – Matthew Reichl in 2010 and Phuc M. Huynh in 2006.

“Having four of our college’s undergraduates receive prestigious Goldwater recognition is unprecedented and demonstrates that our students have access to opportunities in world-class laboratories working side by side with top research staff, students and faculty,” said Mark Smith, dean of the UH College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. “The hard work they do is exciting, lies at the forefront of scientific development and prepares them to be among the nation’s future scientific leaders.”

An avid reader of philosophical works, as well as fantasy novels, Eastham draws on his liberal arts background in his creative approaches to research problems. His research, under the guidance of chemistry professor Ognjen Miljanic, is focused on developing molecules that undergo drastic color changes in the presence of chemicals that are typically associated with spoiled meat, like rotten fish. He plans to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry, so he can research the environmentally friendly formation and implementation of metal-organic frameworks.

“It is very easy to become single-minded when performing test after test and failing consecutively,” Eastham said. “Sometimes it is useful to put your head back in the clouds, to gain a new perspective on the situation through reading and imagination.”

Like Eastham, Markovich uses his artistic side to see science in a different way. He supplements his research in physics with work in the fields of anthropology and art history, assisting a team led by professor Dan Price that investigates a collection of pre-Mayan masks using signal processing.

“I do find that the research has opened my eyes to other possible opportunities outside of pure physics and has put me in touch with fascinating people,” said Markovich, who also is a member of The Honors College at UH. “The work with Dr. Price’s team has provided me with some cool opportunities to continue my liberal arts education past the classroom, allowing me to become a well-rounded student.”

The summer before his freshman year at UH, Markovich was awarded a Quarknet Fellowship by the National Science Foundation to work with UH physics professor Don Kouri. At the end of the summer, Kouri invited him to continue with the group, and he was awarded a Robert A. Welch Foundation Undergraduate Fellowship. Some of his research already has produced three peer-reviewed papers, as well as secured him spots giving presentations at several conferences. He plans to pursue a Ph.D. in physics.

UH Honors College students Biamonte and Ibrahim each received an honorable mention for their outstanding work. Biamonte, who also conducts research under the guidance of Kouri, found an ideal environment at UH to establish himself as a scholar outside the classroom. Upon graduation, he plans to pursue a Ph.D. in theoretical physics to study the application of quantum mechanics to information theory and gravitation. Ibrahim, conducting research under the guidance of professors B. Montgomery Pettitt and David Hoffman in the chemistry department, plans to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry upon graduation to conduct research in medicinal chemistry, a field that will render direct benefits to society through the enhanced design of drugs.

With each university only allowed to nominate four undergraduate students per year, competition to become a Goldwater Scholar is intense. The Goldwater Scholarship Program awarded 275 scholarships this year from a field of 1,095 students nominated nationwide. Each scholarship covers up to a maximum of $7,500 annually for undergraduate tuition, fees, books, and room and board. UH tied for the most Goldwater distinctions at a public university in Texas this year.

- Lisa Merkl, University Communication