Student Spotlight

College of Science Celebrates Two Goldwater Scholars

Two students at the University of Utah – Ethan Lake and Michael Zhao – received the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship this year, and they’re both College of Science majors. 

Ethan Lake

Lake, a junior majoring in mathematics and physics, is conducting impressive research in theoretical physics. “I count myself lucky to have been involved in a fairly wide scope of physics research as an undergrad – I have published or submitted papers in cosmology, gravitational lensing, and superconductivity theory, and have also done mathematical research projects in geometry and representation theory,” said Lake. He is 20.

“Faculty who have worked with Ethan Lake all note that he is the most talented undergraduate student they have ever come across,” said Diane Pataki, associate dean for student affairs. “He has carried out disparate research projects in cosmology and several aspects of theoretical physics.” Lake is also a musician and hopes someday to link art and science through his work.

Lake says that the primary factor in deciding to study physics was his “recent research in strongly correlated systems and topological quantum field theory. In large part this is due to my mentor, physics professor Yong-Shi Wu. When I joined his group, I expected to be handed an ‘easy’ undergraduate-level problem to work on. Instead, I was told to figure out what I was interested in and choose a problem to work on.”

He has published several peer-reviewed articles already, including a first-author paper published in The Astrophysical Journal. He went on to present these findings at the meeting of the International Astronomical Union in Honolulu, Hawaii, in August 2015, as well as several other talks at local astrophysics seminars.

Lake also was selected for the 2016 College of Science Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher Award presented by the university’s Office of Undergraduate Research.

Michael ZhaoZhao, a junior who is majoring in mathematics, is taking advanced courses in mathematics, giving himself an incredible start on his graduate coursework. “I plan to obtain a Ph.D. in number theory. I’d like to conduct research at the intersection of algebraic and analytic theory, and teach at the university level,” said Zhao. He is 20.

While still in high school, Zhao completed numerous AP and university courses, and was the top student in an advanced college course in linear algebra. At the U, he has already undertaken several research projects and has outlined his future research in number theory. He has completed classes in computer science and has worked on applied problems, but has also shown his strong commitment to theoretical math problems.

“Since starting at the U, I have devoted a significant portion of my time towards understanding number theory, by signing up for reading courses, self-studying and the like. A reading class with my former linear algebra teacher, math professor Dragan Milicic, cemented my interest in the intersection of algebraic and analytic number theory,” said Zhao. 

Zhao has received several accolades, including the EnergySolutions Distinguished Scholarship (Spring 2011), the Eccles Distinguished Scholarship (Spring 2013), Dean's List, and College of Science Student Spotlight (Fall 2014).


The Barry M. Goldwater Excellence in Education Program is a highly competitive national scholarship. The one- and two-year scholarships will cover the cost of tuition, fees, books, and room and board up to a maximum of $7,500 per year. Only three students in the State of Utah received the award in 2016. Since 2000, the College of Science alone has nominated 15 successful candidates.

Goldwater Foundation press release

Complete list of 2016 Goldwater scholars


Ruth Cole, an electrical engineer, mother, and Physics student

Elena Nazarenko, luminary and Chemistry student.

Florence Fernandez, Chemistry Student, Teaching Assistant.

Noah Harper, humanitarian and Biology student.

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