April 21, 2009

Undergrads win prestigious science prize

Two University of Chicago undergraduates, second-year mathematics major Hannah Alpert and third-year physics and mathematics major Hannes Schimmelpfennig, received Barry M. Goldwater scholarships last week. The Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Program, established in 1986 to honor Senator Goldwater of Arizona, honors exemplary students in the mathematics, science, and engineering fields each year, and encourages the pursuit of careers in these fields.

Four U of C students were nominated by the University for the scholarship, the maximum number of nominations the University is allowed to make. The application includes an essay, three professor recommendations, and “lots of miscellaneous questions,” Alpert said. The application process is “very tough,” Schimmelpfennig said in an e-mail interview.

Out of 1,097 applicants this year, 278 scholarships were awarded. Over the past 15 years, 46 College students have received the scholarship.

Schimmelpfennig, who is currently on a year-long study abroad program at Cambridge, said it is likely that his mix of research experience and international study set him apart from other applicants. Alpert also plans to continue her education abroad, and has been accepted to the Budapest Semesters in Mathematics Program for the fall. Before spending the fall in Hungary, Alpert will be doing math research at University of Minnesota-Duluth as part of a Research Experience for Undergraduates Program (REU). “I’m excited about both of these programs, because other students have really enjoyed them,” Alpert said.

Alpert and Schimmelpfennig have research experience in their respective fields, both at the University of Chicago and in various summer programs. Alpert has been involved in two research projects, one of which will appear in The Journal of Graph Theory. The second project, also related to graph theory, has been submitted for publication. Schimmelpfennig was research assistant to Assistant Physics Professor Juan Collar and will continue with research in theoretical physics at Thomas Jefferson Laboratory in Virginia this summer. He also wrote a research review paper while at Cambridge, though he said the University of Chicago seems to offer more research opportunities.

“Doing research in Chicago is easier as an undergraduate [than at other universities],” said Schimmelpfennig. “Undergraduates in Professor Collar’s group are given responsibility, and they contribute significantly towards the running of the whole experiment.”

Alpert also credits the University with helping her advance in her studies. “I like that there are a lot of strong math majors here, and I am glad that there are a lot of hard math classes to choose from,” she said. Alpert first became interested in mathematics through the Hampshire College Summer Studies in Mathematics program. “I enthusiastically recommend that program for high-school students who want to be immersed in what mathematicians do,” she said.

Both Alpert and Schimmelpfennig plan to continue their studies past the undergraduate level, in keeping with a statement on the Goldwater Foundation website claiming that “virtually all [Goldwater Scholars] intend to obtain a Ph.D. as their degree objective.”

“My academic goal is to become a theoretical physicist,” said Schimmelpfennig, while Alpert plans to attend graduate school for a Ph.D. in mathematics and then become a professor.