One of the highest undergraduate honors in STEM fields
This story was originally published in Rutgers Today
Three Rutgers University–New Brunswick students have been selected as Goldwater Scholars, one of the most prestigious national honors for undergraduates looking to pursue research careers in the fields of natural sciences, engineering and mathematics.
Cormac Grindall, Andrew Krapivin and Jackson Lee are working with exotic materials that conduct electricity, exploring the theoretical foundations of computation and using the power of computing to explore fundamental questions in physics.
Named after the late Sen.Barry Goldwater, the undergraduate research scholarship program recognizes outstanding students and encourages them to pursue careers in mathematics and natural sciences and engineering.
Rutgers-New Brunswick was awarded the most 2023 Goldwater Scholars for a public institution in New Jersey, said Anne Wallen, director of the Office of Distinguished Fellowships at Rutgers-New Brunswick.
“The fact that we keep having really great success at the national level just speaks to the talent of Rutgers undergraduates,” said Wallen, adding that the scholarship “is the most prestigious, sought-after award” for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) undergraduates in the nation. “They're competing against students in their discipline from across the country, from all kinds of universities.”
The recognition for the students in the School of Arts and Sciences marks the 18th consecutive year that Rutgers-New Brunswick students have been selected as Goldwater Scholars, which awards recipients up to $7,500 to help cover costs associated with room and board, tuition, fees and books. Four hundred thirteen students were awarded the scholarship from a pool of more than 5,000 college sophomores and juniors nominated by 427 academic institutions.
“Cormac, Andrew and Jackson are role models for the Rutgers–New Brunswick community, and champions for our place as an institution of excellence in research that transcends disciplines and addresses grand challenges of STEM and society,” said Rutgers-New Brunswick Chancellor-Provost Francine Conway.
Here are Rutgers-New Brunswick’s 2023 Goldwater Scholars:
Cormac Grindall, who started out interested in mathematics and computer game design, now finds himself in the thickets of theoretical physics, nimbly developing hypotheses to explain the behavior of exotic materials known as “topological insulators.”
The junior, who is double majoring in physics and mathematics, couldn't be happier.
Before he came to Rutgers, Grindall took classes at Ocean County Community College in Toms River, near his hometown of Point Pleasant, with the idea of becoming a video game developer. He took a physics class to better understand the fundamentals of some physics simulations he had created for games and was hooked.
His interest grew during his sophomore year at Rutgers in an honors physics class taught by Jedediah Pixley, an associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.
“It was a small class,” Grindall said. “I really enjoyed it, and I always would ask him questions afterward.”
During the summer under the mentorship of Pixley, Grindall began investigating materials he described as having “weird” properties. Topological insulators can conduct electricity on their surfaces but act as insulators within. Understanding the materials may lead to technological advances and provide insights into the nature of matter itself.
“Cormac was able to grasp deep and difficult concepts quickly, while also being able to do each calculation I suggested with ease,” Pixley said.
By the end of 2022, the college junior’s abilities had risen to the level of a second-year graduate student, Pixley added.
Because of Grindall’s “clarity of thought and tenacious work mentality,” Pixley said, they are close to solving an important research problem.
Earning a doctoral degree is definitely part of Grindall’s future plans. He is leaning toward studying condensed matter physics.
Being awarded a Goldwater Scholarship has bolstered his confidence and solidified his desire to be a research scientist.
“When I first started going to Rutgers, I met some of the students who had won in previous years and I always sort of thought they were so much smarter than me,” Grindall said. “And maybe they are. But it feels very nice to win this after feeling that way."
– Kitta MacPherson
Andrew Krapivin is a junior pursuing a double major in mathematics and computer science whose research efforts in theoretical computer science involve optimizing algorithms. A member of the Honors College, Krapivin has maintained a perfect academic record in a curriculum that includes advanced graduate-level courses.
The 21-year-old said he became interested in mathematics as a fourth grader.
“My mom was really involved in my education, and she signed me up for some online math classes because I was doing really well,” said Krapivin, whose older brother, Viktor, also is a Goldwater Scholar who attended Rutgers.
The elementary student took a pre-algebra course on a website called Art of Problem Solving.
“The thing that really got me interested there was the creator of that site,” Krapivin said. “He had some educational videos on the subjects, and they were oriented toward children. I really enjoyed them. I would actually just watch them for fun. They had these cute little musical outros, and I had a particular favorite.”
While Krapivin initially thought of himself as a “math guy,” the former Lawrence Township resident said he was first introduced to computer programming as a fifth grader through Storming Robots, a Branchburg-based provider of robotics engineering and technology education for talented youth.
“I was programming robots to navigate mazes, and at some point, I was programming a robot to play soccer,” Krapivin said.
Krapivin joined Rutgers during the fall of 2020. His coursework in the spring included doing an independent study with Eric Allender, a Distinguished Professor with the Department of Computer Science. Specifically, Krapivin studied computational complexity theory, which involves creating broad categorizations of algorithms (i.e., how fast they are and how much space they take up).
Krapivin was selected for the Rutgers Aresty Summer Research Program, a science program for rising sophomores at Rutgers-New Brunswick. He worked with Jie Gao, a Rutgers professor of computer science, on routing algorithms for decentralized wireless networks.
The following year, Krapivin joined Martin Farach-Colton, a Distinguish Professor of computer science, on a project with Rob Johnson (who earned his doctoral degree from Rutgers and was a student of Farach-Colton) and Alex Conway, both researchers at software maker VMware Inc. The team worked on accelerating algorithms with the aim of making databases faster.
As for winning the prestigious scholarship, Krapivin said he is excited and surprised.
“I'm a little bit of a pessimist sometimes,” said Krapivin, who intends to network with other Goldwater Scholars. “I wasn't really expecting to win, but it was a great honor to get it.”
– Mike Lucas
As a high school student in East Brunswick, Jackson Lee knew he loved math and computer science. He fully intended to pursue those tracks in college. But, in the summer before his sophomore year as a participant in the Aresty Research Center for Undergraduates at Rutgers, Lee discovered physics.
Mentored by Charles Keeton, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and the academic dean of the School of Arts and Sciences Honors Program, Lee joined a group studying the phenomenon of gravitational lensing, when light is bent by enormous clusters of galaxies. When Lee suggested the researchers employ techniques from machine learning in their analysis and offered to write the computer code, Keeton was impressed.
“I had not expected the project to go in that direction, so I was excited to see Jackson introduce the new approach and take the lead in developing it,” Keeton said.
The experience was transformative for the junior who is pursuing a double major in physics and computer science and is a member of the Honors Program.
“I knew I liked physics,” Lee said. “What I didn’t know was how captivated I would be by the discovery that if you work hard enough to find a way, you can use the immense power of computing as a tool to explore fundamental questions in physics.”
Lee hasn't stopped in his efforts to combine physics explorations with high-level computing. As a sophomore, he volunteered to join a research project exploring novel data encodings for quantum computing with a course instructor, Yipeng Huang, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science.
“In this short four-month, informal project, Jackson made progress that would be typical for a first-year graduate student,” Huang said.
During the summer, Lee participated in the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship program at Brookhaven National Laboratory, where he conducted research on superconductors under the mentorship of the physicist Weiguo Yin. Lee developed a machine-learning approach for the team’s analysis.
Lee is continuing his explorations into quantum computing with Huang and plans to earn a doctoral degree in physics with an emphasis on computation.
“I want to be on the cutting edge of computing that’s applied to physics,” Lee said.
– Kitta MacPherson