MACON – Mercer University sophomore Zechariah Rice has earned one of the nation's most prestigious and competitive research scholarships for undergraduate students, the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, which was awarded to only 252 students for the 2016-2017 academic year. Rice is the University's fourth Goldwater Scholarship winner in as many years.
Additionally, sophomore Jessica Resnick was selected as an honorable mention for the Goldwater Scholarship, marking the second time that the University has had two students recognized by the Goldwater Foundation in the same year. Over the last four years, Mercer undergraduates have claimed 22 percent of the Goldwater Scholarships awarded to students at Georgia colleges and universities.
“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.”
Rice was awarded the scholarship based on academic merit from a field of 1,150 mathematics, science and engineering students who were nominated by the faculties of colleges and universities nationwide. The one- and two-year scholarships, awarded to undergraduate sophomores and juniors, cover the cost of tuition, fees, books, and room and board up to a maximum of $7,500 per year.
“It is an honor and a privilege to receive this award, and it brings me great joy to represent Mercer in this capacity,” said Rice. “The Lord has blessed me, and for that I am grateful. I am especially thankful to my family, my research adviser Dr. Makhin Thitsa, Dr. Loren Sumner, Dr. Chamaree de Silva and Dr. Adam Kiefer, all of whom helped me tremendously in applying for this award.”
Rice, from Newberry, Florida, is majoring in electrical engineering at Mercer and is an offensive lineman on the Bears football team. He works in the lab of Dr. Thitsa, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering in the School of Engineering, where Rice has derived the nonlinear feedback control law for controlling a passively Q-switched pulsed laser system.
Q-switched lasers are high intensity laser pulses with extremely short durations of a few nanoseconds. As technology progresses, micromachining requires more precision, reliability and predictability from these lasers. Using governing equations of laser dynamics, Rice developed an advanced nonlinear controller for the laser pulses. This work, confirmed by simulations, was submitted to The 82nd Annual Meeting of the American Physical Society Southeastern Section. An abstract was published in the Bulletin of the American Physical Society, and Dr. Thitsa and Rice are currently preparing a peer-reviewed article for which he will serve as the second author.
“The nature of my research area, nonlinear control systems, is highly theoretical and focuses on applications of nonlinear control methods on various physical systems,” said Dr. Thitsa. “It is challenging for a theoretician to recruit undergraduate students for research. The task of filling in the necessary background for these students so they can make meaningful contributions is daunting, but Zac is the type of student who enjoys abstract thinking and welcomes the challenges of scientific investigations using advanced mathematical tools.”
Rice, who is minoring in Christianity and computer science, plans to obtain a Ph.D. in electrical engineering with a focus in non-linear controls. He hopes to conduct research and teach at the university level. The valedictorian of his graduating class at Newberry High School, Rice received a Presidential Scholarship and Engineering Scholarship to Mercer, in addition to an athletic scholarship to join the football team. He is the University's first engineering student and second student-athlete to earn recognition from the Goldwater Foundation.
Goldwater Scholars have very impressive academic qualifications that have garnered the attention of prestigious postgraduate fellowship programs. Recent Goldwater Scholars have been awarded 86 Rhodes Scholarships, 125 Marshall Awards, 134 Churchill Scholarships and numerous other distinguished fellowships, such as the National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowships.
Resnick, from Woodstock, was one of 256 students selected as an honorable mention for the Goldwater Scholarship. She is a biochemistry and molecular biology major who works with Dr. Amy Wiles, assistant professor of biology in the College of Liberal Arts, and Dr. Clay Pandorf, assistant professor of physiology in the School of Medicine, on a collaborative project investigating long non-coding RNA (lncRNA) in rat muscle in response to disuse and atrophy.
In addition to understanding muscle atrophy at a genetic level, which could be useful in the treatment of degenerative muscle disorders, the researchers are hoping to identify novel lncRNA for further research. This work is also producing preliminary data for a potential NASA study regarding muscle atrophy during long-term space missions.
“Jessica is an outstanding student who is thoughtful and meticulous in her work. Her approach to scientific inquiry has been to conduct whatever research needs to be done to answer the question at hand,” said Dr. Wiles. “In her proposed experiments, Jessica has combined bioinformatic data analysis with validating that analysis at the bench.”
“Jessica has worked extremely hard for this well-deserved honor,” added Dr. Pandorf. “She has proven to be an intelligent, well-rounded student, and I expect her current and future research experiences as an undergraduate will one day launch her into a successful professional career.”
Resnick plans to obtain a Ph.D. in genetics and conduct research on genetic disease as a professor at a research university. A member of Beta Beta Beta National Biological Honor Society, Phi Eta Sigma National Honor Society and Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society, she has presented her work at Mercer's Breakthroughs in Engagement, Arts and Research (BEAR) Day, and will present at this year's Experimental Biology meeting, April 2-6, in San Diego, California.
“This is great validation from the scientific community for my work. It was an honor to even be nominated for the Goldwater Scholarship,” said Resnick. “I want to thank Dr. Wiles and Dr. Pandorf for their support. I am excited to see what the future holds.”
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. The Goldwater Scholarship is the premier undergraduate award of its type in these fields. Since its first award in 1989, the Foundation has bestowed 7,680 scholarships worth approximately $48 million.