Three Mercer University juniors named Goldwater Scholars

headshots of dakota ellis, ryan brownlee and bryana whitaker
Mercer University juniors, from left, Dakota Ellis, Ryan Brownlee and Bryana Whitaker were awarded the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship for the 2023-24 academic year.

MACON — Three students from Mercer University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences were announced as recipients of the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, the nation’s most prestigious scholarship for undergraduates in science, mathematics and engineering. 

Juniors Ryan Brownlee, Dakota Ellis and Bryana Whitaker are among 413 college sophomores and juniors from across the U.S. — including 20 from Georgia institutions — to be awarded the scholarship for the 2023-24 academic year. 

Brownlee, Ellis and Whitaker bring the University’s total number of winners to 18 since 2013, making Mercer one of the state’s leading producers of Goldwater Scholars. 

A total of 1,267 natural science, engineering and mathematics students were nominated by 427 academic institutions to compete for the 2023 Goldwater Scholarship. Of those Scholars who reported, 197 are men, 203 are women and virtually all intend to obtain a Ph.D. as their highest degree objective. Forty-eight Scholars are mathematics and computer science majors, 308 are majoring in the natural sciences, and 57 are majoring in engineering. 

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

“The Goldwater Scholarship is the premier program for recognizing America’s best young scientists and engineers. Applicants undergo a rigorous application process during which they must highlight their knowledge of their own research area and demonstrate their commitment to pursuing a career in research,” said Dr. Adam Kiefer, Distinguished University Professor of Chemistry and 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.” 

headshot of ryan brownlee
Ryan Brownlee

Brownlee, from Flowery Branch, is majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology. He plans to obtain a Doctor of Medicine/Ph.D. in molecular and cellular biology. His goal is to teach at a research university and conduct research exploring the molecular mechanisms of disease.

“I am very honored and thankful to have received this award,” Brownlee said. “Without my research mentors Dr. Christy Bridges and Dr. Linda Hensel at Mercer and Dr. Brittany Lasseigne at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, I wouldn’t be in the position I am today. They’ve been a blessing every step of the way and have been instrumental in my learning and development in research. It’s a team effort from beginning to end, and I’m thankful for all the time they’ve put into me.” 

Brownlee conducts research in the labs of Dr. Hensel, professor of biology, and Dr. Bridges, professor of biomedical sciences in the School of Medicine. In Dr. Hensel’s lab, he designs and synthesizes drug compounds that will act as inhibitors of biofilm production. Bacterial biofilm contributes to problems within the medical field such as antibiotic resistance.  

“Ryan was involved in two course-based undergraduate research experiences and was at the top of his class in both; thus, he excelled in my undergraduate research from day one,” Dr. Hensel said. “His work and conference participation were exceptional this year and last, so much so that he was elected as the Tri-Beta national honor society vice president for the entire Southeast region of colleges. We are so very proud of Ryan and his accomplishments.” 

In Dr. Bridges’ lab, Brownlee works on a project that focuses on the toxic effects of various forms of mercury on the kidneys and explores the mechanisms by which those compounds are processed in the body. 

“It has been a pleasure to work with Ryan in the lab,” Dr. Bridges said. “He is self-motivated, learns quickly and has a true desire to understand the ‘why’ behind the experiments. He is truly deserving of this award.” 

Brownlee worked with Dr. Lasseigne last summer as part of UAB’s Kidney, Urology and non-Malignant Hematology Undergraduate Research Experience (KURE).

headshot of Dakota Ellis
Dakota Ellis

Ellis, from Buford, is majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology. She plans to obtain a Ph.D. in biochemistry and conduct cancer research at a national laboratory. 

“I am incredibly thankful to have received this prestigious award,” Ellis said. “I could not have earned this honor without the guidance and support of my adviser and mentor, Dr. Emilianne Limbrick. She has helped me grow as a researcher and future scientist. I would also like to thank the Department of Chemistry for its support and helping me achieve my goals. I am blessed to be surrounded by amazing faculty here at Mercer.” 

Ellis conducts research in the lab of Dr. Limbrick, assistant professor of chemistry, working on the biosynthesis of lanthipeptides derived from a novel source, marine bacteria. The hope is to develop new compounds with antibiotic activity. 

“Dakota is very deserving of this honor. She is incredibly determined and has a contagious enthusiasm for science,” Dr. Limbrick said. “I have had the privilege of mentoring Dakota in my lab where her work has focused on the biosynthesis of lanthipeptides. Despite encountering many challenges in the research lab, Dakota has worked rigorously to move the project forward. She is a remarkable young scientist who will make a great impact in her field.”

headshot of Bryana Whitaker
Bryana Whitaker

Whitaker, from Lafayette, is double-majoring in neuroscience and creative writing. She plans to obtain a Ph.D. in neuroscience, conduct research in systems neuroscience, and mentor graduate and undergraduate students in an academic setting. Her goal is to become a faculty member at a research-intensive institution. 

“I am deeply honored to be named a 2023 Goldwater Scholar,” Whitaker said. “I could not have achieved this prestigious distinction without the guidance and mentorship of Dr. Joshua Rodefer at Mercer and Dr. Keith McGregor at UAB. I want to thank both of them for the incredible research opportunities given to me and for their continued support. I am excited to continue along this career path and to see where my research takes me.” 

Whitaker conducts research in the lab of Dr. Rodefer, assistant professor of neuroscience and psychology, investigating empirical questions that probe the interactions between behavioral pharmacology and neuroscience. Specifically, she has worked to characterize the involvement of the neuroendocrine hormone progesterone more fully in disrupted cognition through a literature review. Currently, she is investigating the attentional set-shifting task in different genetic strains of rodents. 

“Ms. Whitaker is an exceptionally bright young scientist with clear aspirations to pursue graduate work in neuroscience,” Dr. Rodefer said. “She’s incredibly deserving of this award as she has been an active participant in our lab activities from day one and has contributed to a number of projects along the way. This has enabled her to earn authorship on both professional conference presentations and published manuscripts related to our work in neuroscience and psychopharmacology.” 

Whitaker worked with Dr. McGregor last summer as part of UAB’s Blazer BRAIN (Broadening Representation and Inclusion in Neuroscience) Undergraduate Summer Program. 

Goldwater Scholars have gone on to win an impressive array of prestigious post-graduate fellowships, among which are the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, Rhodes Scholarship, Marshall Scholarship, Churchill Scholarship, Hertz Fellowship, Department of Energy Computational Science Graduate Fellowship, and the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship. 

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 research careers in the fields of the natural sciences, engineering and mathematics. The Goldwater Scholarship is the preeminent undergraduate award of its type in these fields. 

About Mercer University 

Founded in 1833, Mercer University is a dynamic and comprehensive center of undergraduate, graduate and professional education. With approximately 9,000 students enrolled in 12 schools and colleges, on major campuses in Macon and Atlanta; medical school sites in Macon, Savannah and Columbus; and at regional academic centers in Henry and Douglas counties, Mercer is ranked among the top tier of national research universities by U.S. News & World Report. The Mercer Health Sciences Center includes the University’s School of Medicine and Colleges of Nursing, Health Professions and Pharmacy. Mercer is affiliated with five teaching hospitals – Atrium Health Navicent The Medical Center and Piedmont Macon Medical Center in Macon; Memorial Health University Medical Center in Savannah; and Piedmont Columbus Regional Hospital and St. Francis-Emory Healthcare in Columbus. The University also has an educational partnership with Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins. It operates an academic press and a performing arts center in Macon and an engineering research center in Warner Robins. Mercer Medicine, the clinical faculty practice of the School of Medicine, is based in Macon and operates additional clinics in Sumter, Peach, Clay, Putnam and Harris counties. Mercer is one of only 293 institutions nationwide to shelter a chapter of The Phi Beta Kappa Society, the nation’s most prestigious academic honor society; one of eight institutions to hold membership in the Georgia Research Alliance; and the only private university in Georgia to field an NCAA Division I athletic program. For more information, visit

Jennifer Falk is the director of digital communications at Mercer University and editor-in-chief of The Den. She creates and supervises the development of written and multimedia content for primary University web pages and e-newsletters, including The Den and This Week @ Mercer. In addition, she collaborates with schools and offices to maintain web content and examines data and analytics to drive content creation decisions. She also serves as a member of the University's social media committee.