2021 Churchill Scholar

Six in a Row!

Isaac Martin brings home the U's sixth straight Churchill Scholarship.

For the sixth consecutive year a College of Science student has received the prestigious Churchill Scholarship to study at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Isaac Martin, a senior honors student majoring in mathematics and physics, is one of only 17 students nationally to receive the award this year.

Martin’s designation ties Harvard’s six-year run of consecutive Churchill Scholars (1987-1992) and is second only to Princeton’s seven-year streak (1994-2000).

“Isaac’s recognition as a Churchill Scholar is the result of years of remarkable discipline and dedication to a field of study that he loves,” said Dan Reed, senior vice president for Academic Affairs.

Martin decided to apply for a Churchill Scholarship as a freshman, after meeting for lunch with Michael Zhao, a 2017 Churchill Scholar who unexpectedly passed away in 2018.

“I am positively delighted and quite flabbergasted to receive the scholarship,” Martin says, “but I wish I could phone Michael to thank him for making the opportunity known to me. His legacy lives on in the undergraduate program of the math department here at Utah, where many others like me have greatly benefited from the example he set.”

Martin, a recipient of an Eccles Scholarship and a 2020 Barry Goldwater Scholarship, remembers as a kindergartener trying to write down the biggest number in existence and, as an eighth grader, suddenly understanding trigonometry after hours of reading on Wikipedia.

“That sensation of understanding, the feeling that some tiny secret of the universe was suddenly laid bare before me – that’s something I’ve only felt while studying math and physics, and it’s a high I will continue to chase for the rest of my life,” he says.

Books by Carl Sagan and Jim Baggott also kindled his love of math and physics, and after several years of self-directed study in middle and high school and a year at Salt Lake Community College, Martin enrolled at the U as a mathematics and physics double major.

After early undergraduate experiences in the research labs of physics professors Vikram Deshpande and Yue Zhao, Martin found himself gravitating more toward mathematics. He completed a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) at UC Santa Barbara studying almost Abelian Lie groups, which have applications in cosmology and crystallography, under Zhirayr Avetisyan. This experience resulted in Martin’s first research paper. He later completed another REU at the University of Chicago.

“This research was incredibly rewarding because while it applied to physics, the work itself was firmly rooted in the realm of pure math.” Martin says.

Returning to Utah, Martin worked with professors Karl Schwede and Thomas Polstra to study F-singularities, and developed this work into a single-author paper and his currently-in-progress honors thesis with professor Anurag Singh.

“I would not be where I am today without the incredible faculty at Utah and their willingness to devote time to undergraduates,” Martin says.

At Cambridge, Martin hopes to study algebraic geometry, number theory and representation theory (“in that order,” he says) in pursuit of a master’s degree in pure mathematics.

“I’m particularly interested in learning as much as I can about mirror symmetry, which I intend to make my essay topic,” he adds. “I also plan to drink a lot of tea and to buy one of those Sherlock Holmes coats. I will also begrudgingly begin using the term ‘maths’ but I promise to stop the instant I board a plane back to the U.S. in 2022.”

After he returns from Cambridge, Martin plans to earn a doctoral degree in pure mathematics and enter academia, using his experiences in many different educational systems including U.S. and British public schools, homeschooling and online learning, to broaden opportunities for students from a diversity of backgrounds.

“My past has molded me into who I am today,” he says, “and I hope I can use my experiences to create programs in STEM for opportunity-starved students, whether they are held back due to non-traditional schooling or to socio-economic factors.”


by Paul Gabrielsen - First Published in @theU

Related Posts


2020 Churchill Scholar

Goldwater Winner

Goldwater Winner

Cameron Owen 2018 Churchill Scholar

2019 Churchill Scholar

2018 Churchill Scholar

2017 Churchill Scholar

2016 Churchill Scholar

Goldwater Winner

Isaac Martin

Isaac Martin awarded prestigious Goldwater Scholarship.

The College of Science is pleased to announce that Isaac Martin, a junior studying mathematics and physics, has been awarded Utah's second Goldwater Scholarship for 2020-21.

During middle school and most of high school, Isaac lived in Dubai with his family, where he attended an online high school, allowing him to focus on science and math classes. When his family moved to Utah the summer before his senior year, he decided to attend Salt Lake Community College (SLCC) instead of finishing high school, taking as many math and physics classes as he could.

“It was incredible because I had never had teachers like that before,” said Isaac. “My professors at SLCC were more than happy to talk with me after class and during office hours. They were the main reason I was able to complete SLCC's catalog of math and physics courses in a year. They were instrumental in my decision to switch out of my pre-declared computer engineering major into a math and physics double major at the U.”

Transition to Math

During Isaac’s first four semesters at the U, he intended to pursue a physics Ph.D. and focused primarily on physics classes; however, after brief stints in two different labs, he realized mathematics is a better fit for his talents and interests.

Last summer, Isaac participated in a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his work has since resulted in a publication. Isaac has been planning to attend the University of Chicago’s REU math program this summer, but if that doesn’t happen due to COVID-19 concerns, he will continue working on positive characteristic commutative algebra with his U supervisors, Thomas Polstra, a National Science Foundation postdoc, and Professor Karl Schwede.

He is indebted to professors in the Math Department, including Dr. Adam Boocher, previously a postdoc at the U and now assistant professor of mathematics at the University of San Diego; Professor Srikanth Iyengar; Dr. Schwede, Dr. Polstra; and Professor Henryk Hecht. “The thing I appreciate most about my mentors is their willingness to take time out their day to talk to me and offer advice,” said Isaac. “My conversations with them are mathematically insightful, but they also reassure me that I'm worth something as a person and am good enough to pursue a career in math.”

Career Goals

When he’s not doing math, Isaac is most likely either playing piano, rock climbing, running in the foothills, or beating his roommates in Smash Bros Ultimate. “I used to have a huge passion for video game programming and would compete in game jams, which are game development competitions held over 36- or 48-hour time intervals,” said Isaac. “I haven’t been able to do that much in the last few years, but would like to pick it up again as a hobby.”

Isaac hopes to have a career in academia as a pure mathematics researcher. “I'd especially like to study problems in commutative algebra and representation theory with relevance to mathematical physics,” he said. Isaac also remains interested in the world of condensed matter. “There is so much novel mathematics dictating theoretical condensed matter, and I expect many exciting breakthroughs will happen there in the near future.”


The Goldwater Scholarship



As the result of a partnership with the Department of Defense National Defense Education Programs (NDEP), Mrs. Peggy Goldwater Clay, Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation, announced that the Trustees of the Goldwater Board have increased the number of Goldwater scholarships it has awarded for the 2020-2021 academic year to 396 college students from across the United States. “As it is vitally important that the Nation ensures that it has the scientific talent it needs to maintain its global competitiveness and security, we saw partnering with the Goldwater Foundation as a way to help ensure the U.S. is developing this talent,” said Dr. Jagadeesh Pamulapati, Director of the NDEP program, as he explained the partnership. With the 2020 awards, this brings the number of scholarships awarded since 1989 by the Goldwater Foundation to 9047 and a scholarship total to over $71M.

From an estimated pool of over 5,000 college sophomores and juniors, 1343 natural science, engineering and mathematics students were nominated by 461 academic institutions to compete for the 2020 Goldwater scholarships. Of students who reported, 191 of the Scholars are men, 203 are women, and virtually all intend to obtain a Ph.D. as their highest degree objective. Fifty Scholars are mathematics and computer science majors, 287 are majoring in the natural sciences, and 59 are majoring in engineering. Many of the Scholars have published their research in leading journals and have presented their work at professional society conferences.

Goldwater Scholars have impressive academic and research credentials that have garnered the attention of prestigious post-graduate fellowship programs. Goldwater Scholars have been awarded 93 Rhodes Scholarships, 146 Marshall Scholarships, 170 Churchill Scholarships, 109 Hertz Fellowships, and numerous other distinguished awards like the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships.


by Michele Swaner



2019 Churchill Scholar

Cameron Owen of Boise, Idaho, a senior honors student majoring in chemistry and physics and minoring in mathematics, has received the prestigious Churchill Scholarship to study at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. He is one of only 15 students nationally to receive the award this year and is the fourth consecutive Churchill Scholar from the U.

“Cameron’s achievement is a testament to his scientific curiosity and diligence in his undergraduate research,” said Dan Reed, senior vice president for Academic Affairs. “A fourth Churchill Scholarship award in as many years demonstrates the value of undergraduate research and mentorship experiences at the U, and that our students are among the best and brightest in the world.”

The Churchill Scholarship, established in 1963 at the request of Winston Churchill, provides undergraduates with outstanding academic achievement in the science, technology, engineering and math fields the opportunity to complete a one-year master’s program at the University of Cambridge. Students go through a rigorous endorsement process in order to apply, but only after their home institution has been vetted with the Winston Churchill Foundation. The U was added to the foundation in 2014.

Owen, a recipient of a 2018 Barry Goldwater Scholarship, came out of high school with an interest in chemistry. He joined the lab of Peter Armentrout, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, after hearing about Armentrout’s research in his honors science cohort. While at the U, Owen has published his research and traveled twice to the Netherlands as part of the National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates program.

Owen and Armentrout, in an ongoing collaborative effort with the Air Force Research Laboratory, are currently studying the activation of methane by metal atoms, particularly gold, in the gas phase. Methane activation, the process of breaking the carbon-hydrogen bond of methane, and subsequent functionalization could eventually be used to convert the enormous amounts of methane from natural and shale gas feedstocks into usable products like methanol or ethane. “I want the activation of methane into liquid fuels and other viable products to be environmentally beneficial and economically advantageous,” Owen said. “Current processes that activate methane are exorbitant in both time and energy.”

At Cambridge, Owen will explore how methane chemically attaches to the surfaces of certain metals. “My project will be purely theoretical,” he said. “But I’ll be able to apply what I’ve learned about certain metals that react with methane in the gas phase to potential catalysts of the future. You can extend those results to better understand the activation of other greenhouse gases in order to create more effective real-world catalysts.”

Owen is looking to continue his work in a doctoral program after his return from Cambridge.