Junior Kyla Semmendinger, Sophomore Runyu Cai Recognized as Mercer’s First Pair of Goldwater Scholars in a Single Year


Junior Jessica Resnick Earns Honorable Mention Recognition for Second Consecutive Year

MACON – For the first time in the University's history, Mercer has two recipients in a single year of the nation's most prestigious scholarship for undergraduates in science, mathematics and engineering. Junior Kyla Semmendinger and sophomore Runyu Cai both earned the highly competitive Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, and junior Jessica Resnick was selected as an Honorable Mention for a second consecutive year.

“The most important measure of our work as a university must always be the doors to opportunity that we are helping open for our students,” said Mercer President William D. Underwood. “Six Goldwater awardees and three Honorable Mentions in the last five years is an impressive indicator of the quality of our students and the research they are engaged in, and the significant investment that their faculty mentors have made in helping position them for this prestigious national honor.”

Semmendinger and Cai were among 240 students – and two of only six in Georgia – awarded the scholarship based on academic merit from a field of 1,286 mathematics, science and engineering students nominated by the faculties of 470 colleges and universities nationwide.

The one- and two-year scholarships, available to sophomores and juniors, cover the cost of tuition, fees, books, and room and board up to a maximum of $7,500 per year.

“Applicants undergo a rigorous application process and must write a detailed scientific proposal for an independent research project,” said Dr. Adam Kiefer, associate professor of chemistry and the Goldwater Scholarship faculty representative at Mercer. “This award is not only a testament to these students' hard work, intelligence and determination, but also recognizes their potential as future researchers.”

Semmendinger, from Bremen, is majoring in environmental engineering with minors in Spanish, chemistry and engineering for development. She plans to obtain a Ph.D. in environmental engineering with a research focus in the relationship between hydrology and forestry, specifically in developing nations.

“Kyla is an outstanding student and member of the Mercer community. She is an energetic, fun-loving, gentle and academically-focused young person,” said Dr. Laura Lackey, senior associate dean and professor of environmental engineering. “Kyla was instrumental in the success of a 2015 Mercer On Mission trip to Kenya that focused on monitoring the efficacy of using biosand filters to treat water for drinking. The field-based laboratory experience she gained in Kenya combined with her outstanding leadership skills make her the perfect candidate to coordinate and lead a drinking water study planned for this summer in Zaruma, Ecuador.”

“Throughout my time working with Kyla, she has exhibited exceptional intellectual curiosity, a remarkable work ethic and very strong leadership skills,” added Dr. Michael MacCarthy, assistant professor of environmental engineering and director of the Engineering for Development Program. “Since the fall of 2015, she has been a key, increasingly valuable member of Mercer's Engineering for Development Research Team, and has excelled in her research on low-cost shallow geothermal heating and cooling systems for households in Central Georgia.”

Semmendinger is president of the Society of Women Engineers, vice president of member development for Alpha Gamma Delta sorority, a member of Tau Beta Pi engineering honor society, peer adviser and Bessie Tift Scholar. She has worked as a preceptor in the Mathematics Department and as a member of the Student Admissions Team.

“Being named a Goldwater Scholar is wonderful proof that hard work, perseverance and believing in yourself pay off,” said Semmendinger. “I'm incredibly thankful for the faculty, especially Dr. Lackey and Dr. MacCarthy, who have continually pushed me to grow not only as a student and researcher but also as a person.”

Cai, from Macon, is double-majoring in electrical engineering and physics and plans to obtain doctoral degrees in both fields of study. Originally from Weihai, Shandong, China, he aspires to teach at the university level and conduct research in nonlinear control and theoretical physics.

“After a couple of months into working with Runyu, I felt an immense responsibility on my shoulders because I realized I was mentoring a great future researcher,” said Dr. Makhin Thitsa, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. “Runyu has made major contributions to multiple projects in my lab. He devised a method to apply nonlinear control to modulate 550-nanometer laser emission, which is the key wavelength of interest for underwater communication without frequency chirping. More recently, he developed a method to eliminate crosstalk in semiconductor optical amplifiers using nonlinear state feedback control.”

Cai is the first author on a research article on this work that has been accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed journal Optical Materials, and the second author on another article that is currently in process. He has presented his research at the International Workshop on Photoluminescence and Rare Earth in Greenville, South Carolina, and the International Conference on Optical and Optoelectronic and Photonic Materials and Applications in Montreal, Canada.

He is treasurer of the Society of Military Engineers, event coordinator for Mercer League of Legends, secretary of Mercer Car Club and a member of the Kpop Dance Team of the University's Korean Student Association. Additionally, he earned the 2016 Outstanding Student in Physics Award.

“Being recognized as a Goldwater Scholar is indeed a formal acknowledgment of my dedication over the past few years. It encourages me to continue facing challenges in both research and life,” said Cai. “I am deeply grateful to those who support and guide me through this journey, especially my mentor Dr. Makhin Thitsa, recommenders Dr. Ei Ei Brown and Dr. Chamaree de Silva, and Goldwater faculty representative Dr. Adam Kiefer.”

Resnick, from Woodstock, was one of 307 students recognized as an Honorable Mention. A biochemistry and molecular biology major, she was one of 256 students selected as an Honorable Mention last year. She plans to obtain a Ph.D. in an interdisciplinary program in genetics and molecular biology and to study genetic disease as a professor at a research university.

“Jessica has made outstanding contributions on a collaborative project to identify non-coding RNAs in muscle tissue,” said Dr. Clay Pandorf, assistant professor of physiology. “She has been highly motivated and diligent, and the wonderful contribution she has made to this research is getting the acknowledgement she deserves.”

“Jessica is a thoughtful, outstanding student who has always pursued challenges. Her recognition is well deserved,” added Dr. Amy Wiles, associate professor of biology.

Resnick is senior resident assistant for Greek Village and campus apartments, a participant in the Research Scholars Track of the University Honors Program, and a member of Chi Omega sorority, Beta Beta Beta National Biological Honor Society, Phi Eta Sigma National Honor Society and Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society. She was recently selected as an Amgen Scholar and will study this summer at Washington University in St. Louis.

“I feel like I'm being rewarded just for doing what I love,” said Resnick. “Receiving Goldwater Honorable Mention recognition for the second time is definitely an honor and a reminder to never give up. I've been fortunate to have great support from Mercer. I'm surrounded by so many amazing professors and ambitious students. Science isn't done in isolation, and nothing I have achieved could have been done alone. Research is my passion, and I'm excited to see what the future holds.”

Goldwater Scholars have impressive academic qualifications that have garnered the attention of prestigious postgraduate fellowship programs. Recent recipients have been awarded 89 Rhodes Scholarships, 127 Marshall Awards, 145 Churchill Scholarships, 96 Hertz Fellowships and numerous other distinguished awards like the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships.

The Goldwater Foundation is a federally endowed agency established by Public Law 99-661 on Nov. 14, 1986. The scholarship program, honoring Sen. Barry Goldwater, was designed to foster and encourage outstanding students to pursue careers in the fields of mathematics, the natural sciences and engineering, and is the premier undergraduate award of its type in these fields. Since its first award in 1989, the Foundation has bestowed 7,921 scholarships worth approximately $63 million.

For more information, visit goldwater.scholarsapply.org.