Two Stony Brook University students have been selected as recipients of the Barry Goldwater Scholarship, which recognizes outstanding undergraduates who intend to pursue PhDs in STEM fields. This year’s winners are both applied mathematics and statistics majors: Sarah Gunasekera ‘24, from Mt. Sinai, New York; and Andrew Bae ‘24, from Cohoes, New York.
The Goldwater Scholarship accepts limited nominations, and this year students competed in a national pool of 5,000 applicants. Of the 1,267 who were nominated by 427 institutions, only 413 were selected as scholarship recipients.
“Winning the Goldwater Scholarship is a significant achievement,” said Ashley Staples, director for external fellowships. “Our institution can only put forward four candidates for this award and each SBU candidate was exceptional. That Sarah and Andrew were recognized at the national level is an excellent testament to their work and the amazing environment for undergraduate research fostered here at Stony Brook.”
Gunasekera has spent the past year researching under advisors Carlos Simmerling (Department of Chemistry) and Jingfang Ju (Department of Pathology). She will continue on to study bioinformatics/computational biology, and aims to pave the way for better therapeutics to improve human health using novel computational and bioinformatic methods.
Bae has been researching under advisors Susu Xu (Departments of Civil Engineering and Computer Science) and Benjamin S. Hsiao (Chemistry). He plans to continue his studies in smart mobility and will be using machine learning to make our transportation systems safer and more sustainable.
Bae originally majored in chemical engineering for the first three years of his undergraduate studies before making the difficult decision to switch fields.
“Although I was one of the top students in the chemical engineering department, I felt unfulfilled and disinterested in both my coursework and undergraduate research projects,” said Bae. He spent time exploring different fields before finally deciding to pursue transportation, and major in applied mathematics and statistics in the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences (CEAS). “Although the transition was tough, I’m so fortunate to have met people along the way who have guided me in the right direction.”
Bae has a published first-author workshop paper in ACM SenSys 2022 titled, “Discovering and Understanding Biases in Autonomous Pedestrian Trajectory Prediction Systems.” This summer, he will be a research intern at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California.
“I’m excited about pursuing PhD work because of the future opportunities I see in the field of smart transportation,” said Bae. “With recent advancements in autonomous vehicles and the Internet of Things, we are potentially on the verge of a new revolution in transportation, and I hope to be at the forefront of this revolution.”
Gunasekera was originally unsure of which career path she wanted to pursue at the start of her undergraduate studies. Her interests were spread across many different fields in biology, mathematics and computer science. She eventually decided to pursue a double major in biology (in the College of Arts and Sciences) and applied mathematics and statistics.
“I felt uncertain about the coursework and research I hoped to engage with; however, this journey through academic fields helped me understand that I wanted to be an interdisciplinary scientist,” said Gunasekera. Her studies formally introduced her to the computational and mathematical tools that complemented her biological learning in other classes.
In May 2022, Gunasekera contributed to a paper published in the Journal of Chemical Theory and Computation titled “Accelerating the Ensemble Convergence of RNA Hairpin Simulations with a Replica Exchange Structure Reservoir.”
Gunasekera will continue to work on her Goldwater Scholarship project proposal under the Frances Velay Women and Science Research Program at Stony Brook this summer.
“I am excited to engage in doctoral studies because I believe, as an undergraduate, I have only scratched the surface of the vast realm of computer-aided biology,” Gunasekera said. “Incorporating bioinformatic tools in experimental research has seen a significant increase because of technological developments, and I am keen on being part of a research setting that actively drives this expansion.”
“Being recognized by the Goldwater Foundation helps to reinforce students’ desire to pursue research careers in the natural sciences, engineering and mathematics and to recognize students that have shown dedication and promise to advance scholarly work,” said David Rubenstein, associate dean of the Graduate School who is also a professor and former Goldwater scholar. “The Goldwater Scholarship is a strong first step for students interested in continuing in careers dependent on research.”
The Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Program, named after the five-term Arizona senator, is one of the oldest and most prestigious nationally competitive awards in the natural sciences, engineering and mathematics. The scholarship has been awarded annually to roughly 300 college sophomores and juniors since 1986. It is awarded based on merit and the amount given is determined by the student’s financial needs, which includes up to a maximum of $7,500 per academic year.
“It’s been wonderful to see the potential of the students who are nominated for the Goldwater Scholarship, and to follow how being recognized as one of the next generation leaders in science research can propel them to other amazing opportunities and achievements,” said Karen Kernan, director for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities. “We are very excited for both Andrew and Sarah!”
Students interested in applying for the Goldwater scholarship can learn more about the award at External Fellowships and Scholarships.
— Nicole Dona