Beckman Scholar

Sonia SEhgal

 

U Biology's Sonja Sehgal accepted a Beckman Scholarship this past spring to add to the trove of awards that were already sitting on her academic “mantle” at home. Collective kudos include a Biology Research Scholars Award, a College of Science Scholarship and a Utah Flagship Scholarship.

The Beckman, however, is a step up from her other awards. It represents an unprecedented opportunity, perhaps found nowhere else, in which an undergraduate researcher can hone her craft at the bench and under extraordinary mentorship. The program is a 15-month, mentored research experience for exceptional undergraduate students in chemical and biological sciences, and Martin Horvath, associate professor in the School of Biological Sciences, will serve as her mentor. (Rory Weeks, undergraduate in the Department of Chemistry is the second U Beckman Scholar for 2020-21.) Each scholar receives a $21,000 research stipend to facilitate nine academic calendar months and two three-month summers of research experience. Recipients from around the nation participate in the prestigious Beckman Symposium each summer with one another. Their research began in June 2020 and will conclude in August 2021.

“I started out as a freshman in the ACCESS,” the biology senior explains, referring to the decades-long program hosted by the College of Science Program for Women in Math and Science. “Through this program, I was able to explore various fields in STEM which really kick-started my interest in pursuing biology! Joining the Horvath Lab further sparked my curiosity and has shown me that science goes beyond the stereotypical image of a “scientist.”

Tracking toward a career in medicine

Sonia Sehgal (undergraduate, Biology Research Scholar, Beckman Research Scholar) and Martin Horvath discuss the structure of MutY

Sonia Sehgal (undergraduate, Biology Research Scholar, Beckman Research Scholar) and Martin Horvath discuss the structure of MutY.

Sehgal is far from stereotypical, as a scientist or as an undergraduate. As a woman she knows that she’s in the minority as she works through her academic career and finally a professional career in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics). As a complement to her academic career, the Sandy, Utah native has found a job as a University Ambassador. “The ambassadors work closely with the Office of Admissions to share our experience and bring a personal perspective to prospective U of U students,” she says. “When not giving tours or working recruitment events, we can be found having a good time with each other or,” she quips, “practicing walking backwards.”

Though Sehgal finds herself walking backwards while giving tours, she is definitely moving forward in her academic career. “I’m excited to continue doing research and I also plan on attending medical school after graduation. I want to learn about the various mechanisms that can cause diseases to present themselves in different forms across individuals. I want to use this platform to relay these findings with patients and create more representation in the field to strive for a more trusting and effective patient interaction.”

But before medical school, there’s research to be done, a focus in undergraduate education in the SBS that has arguably become the School’s signature.  “In the Horvath lab,” Sehgal explains about her work, MUTYH is a DNA repair enzyme commonly related to diseases like cancer. I am currently finding the role of different biological probes to see how they can affect the activity of this enzyme. Learning more about regulating the activity of MUTYH will allow us to create better drug-targeting systems for cancer in the future.” What most people, even the scientifically-inclined, may not know about the model subject Sehgal is studying is that the MutY enzyme can be found in almost every living organism, yet there is still a lot we don’t know about it.

Hangin' out.

That’s something that inspires rather than discourages Sehgal who will graduate with her BS in 2021. With the help of the Beckman Scholarship, the mentorship of Horvath and the broad view of higher education she gets by being an ambassador, Sehgal finds her future as she tracks toward a career in medicine, promising. And true of all of accomplished undergraduate researchers of Sehgal’s stripe, she is poised for far more awards, and accomplishments.

“The Beckman experience has been going well,” she reports. “Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the first stage has been virtual. I have been working on coding and molecular docking. However, I look forward to getting into the lab next semester and start testing!” Of Sehgal Horvath adds, "Sonia has a gift for finding a simple clear question to address in her science. She will go far. I feel really lucky to have had the chance to work with her these past years."

Asked what her interests and “likes” she doesn’t stray very far from her time in the lab. She likes rock climbing, dogs … and getting positive results for polymerase chain reaction (PCR), a method widely used to rapidly make millions to billions of copies of a specific DNA sample.

It’s the sort of thrill that allows a budding scientist, like Sonia Sehgal, to take a very small sample of DNA and amplify it to a large enough amount to study in detail.

 

by David Pace

 

 

2020 Churchill Scholar

Michael Xiao

Five for Five.

Michael Xiao brings home the U's fifth straight Churchill Scholarship.

Five years after the University of Utah became eligible to compete for the prestigious Churchill Scholarship out of the United Kingdom, the university has sported just as many winners. All of them hail from the College of Science, and all were facilitated through the Honors College which actively moves candidates through a process of university endorsement before applications are sent abroad. The effort has obviously paid off.

“These students are truly amazing,” says Ginger Smoak, Associate Professor Lecturer in the Honors College and the Distinguished Scholarships Advisor. “They are not merely intelligent, but they are also creative thinkers and problem solvers who are first-rate collaborators, researchers, learners, and teachers.”

The most recent U of U winner of the Churchill Scholars program is Michael Xiao of the School of Biological Sciences (SBS).

While early on he aspired to be a doctor, Xiao’s fascination with how mutations in the structure of DNA can lead to diseases such as cancer led him to believe that while it would be one thing “to be able to treat someone, to help others, it would be quite another to be able to understand and study the underpinnings of what you’re doing and to be at its forefront.” This is particularly true, right now, he says, with the advent of the coronavirus.

Michael Xiao

The underpinnings of Xiao’s recent success started as early as eighth grade in the basement of his parent’s house where he was independently studying the effects of UV light damage on DNA. To quantify those effects he was invited to join a lab at nearby BYU where faculty member Kim O’Neill, Professor of Microbiology & Molecular Biology mentored him through high school, even shepherding him through a first-author paper.

Since then Xiao has matured into a formidable researcher, beginning his freshman year in the lab of Michael Deininger, Professor of Internal Medicine and the Huntsman Cancer Institute, followed by his move to the lab of Jared Rutter, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator in biochemistry. With Rutter he studied the biochemistry of PASK and its roles in muscle stem cell quiescence and activation of the differentiation program. His findings provided insight into the role and regulation of PASK during differentiation, as well as a rationale for designing a small molecule inhibitor to treat diseases such as muscular dystrophy by rejuvenating the muscle stem cell population.

Early experience in a research lab is not only about engaging the scientific method through new discoveries but also about making academic connections that lead to auspicious careers.

Sir Winston Churchill

One of those connections for Xiao was with Chintan Kikani now at the University of Kentucky. In fact the two of them are currently finishing up the final numbers of their joint PASK- related research.

The Churchill award, named after Sir. Winston Churchill, will take Xiao to Cambridge University beginning in October. While there, Xiao plans to join the lab of Christian Frezza at the MRC Cancer Unit for a master’s in medical science. After returning from the UK, Xiao plans to pursue an MD/PhD via combined medical school and graduate school training in an NIH-funded Medical Scientist Training Program.

Xiao is quick to thank his many mentors as well as SBS and the Honors College, the latter of which, he says, taught him to think critically and communicate well, especially through writing. Honors “was very helpful in helping me improve in a lot of areas,” he says, “that are important to my work and my personal life as well.”

Denise Dearing, Director of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Utah describes Michael Xiao as one who “epitomizes how early research opportunities are transformative and how they ‘turbo-charge’ the likelihood of creating world-class scientists. The School is first in line to congratulate him on receiving this extraordinary award.”

 

by David Pace

 

- First Published in OurDNA Magazine, Spring 2020

Related Posts

 

2020 Research 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

 

 

Goldwater Winner

Lydia Fries

Lydia Fries awarded prestigious Goldwater Scholarship.

The College of Science is pleased to announce that Lydia Fries has been awarded a Goldwater Scholarship for 2020-21.

As a junior in chemistry, Lydia intends to obtain a Ph.D. in either organic chemistry or electrochemistry. She has done research in both Matt Sigman’s and Shelley Minteer’s groups, and Lydia is an author on two papers with both professors. She has worked on a variety of projects involving electrochemistry, palladium catalysis, and computationally focused projects. As an undergraduate she enrolls in many graduate-level courses and is a Teaching Assistant for Organic Spectroscopy I. Lydia was accepted to REU programs this summer, but has committed to an internship at Genentech and hopes that the current pandemic will have subsided by the time her internship is to begin mid-May.

With encouragement from high school teachers, Lydia followed her passion and her strong aptitude for STEM subjects, and ignored the warnings from her broader community that she shouldn’t pursue such an expensive and “useless” degree. She followed her heart and her brain to the University of Utah where she landed in the ACCESS program and was immediately surrounded by many intelligent and motivated women.

In addition to her studies, Lydia enjoys rock climbing and spending time outdoors, and is currently staying at safe at home in St. George.

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.

 

The Goldwater Foundation is a federally endowed agency established by Public Law 99-661 on November 14, 1986. The Scholarship Program honoring Senator 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.

 

by Anne Marie Vivienne,
Chemistry News - 03/30/2020

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.

2018 Churchill Scholar

Scott Neville receives Utah's third straight Churchill Scholarship.

Scott Neville of Clearfield, Utah, who graduated from the University of Utah in December with a degree in mathematics and in computer science, has received a prestigious Churchill Scholarship to study at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

He is one of only 15 students in the U.S. to receive the award this year and is the third Churchill Scholar from the U, all of whom are mathematicians.

“Having three Churchill scholars in the last four years is truly remarkable,” said Ruth Watkins, president of the University of Utah. “There is no doubt that Scott will continue to successfully represent the U at Cambridge.”

Neville was drawn to math when he was introduced to the Collatz Conjecture in high school.

“The conjecture is interesting for its simplicity and difficulty, as well as its lack of consequence,” said Neville. “I proved via enumeration and equation manipulation that there was only one cycle with exactly one odd number, and none with exactly two odd numbers. This was a known result, but I was ecstatic. I realized there were unsolved problems in math and I could answer them.”

Neville enrolled at the U because he was already involved in an applied mathematics project with professor Duncan Metcalfe in the Anthropology department. The objective was to investigate infeasible years in radiocarbon dating. The work was funded by the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program.

“This was a good learning experience in both research and communicating mathematics, since the senior researcher had only passing familiarity with the math involved,” says Neville.

The project resulted in a poster given at the Undergraduate Research Symposium in 2016.

“In addition, I knew the U had a rigorous mathematics and computer science program, but I hadn’t actually met any of those professors,” says Neville.

While attending the U, Neville presented his work in Japan, completed advanced courses in modern algebra and number theory, and took second place in the ASFM national collegiate mathematics championship in 2017. He also has co-authored three publications with university faculty.

Neville credits many U faculty for helping him through his undergraduate career. Suresh VenkatasubramanianTommaso de Fernex,Duncan MetcalfeArjun KrishnanAditya BhaskaraPeter Trapaand Gordan Savin were each instrumental in helping him with research, presentations, course work and advising.

Neville aspires to become a professor at a research university so he can continue working on math and sharing it with others.

“I want to give back to a community that’s given so much to me. I want to continue learning and pushing the limits of what mathematics, and hence humanity, can do,” said Neville.

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. The award is worth about $60,000 in U.S. dollars, depending on the exchange rate.

Candidates 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 spring 2014.

The Churchill Scholarship has been called “the most academically challenging of the U.K. scholarships.”

Neville will begin his studies at Cambridge in October 2018.

 

2017 Churchill Scholar

Michael Zhao, a Salt Lake City native and senior in mathematics pursuing an honors degree at the U, has received the prestigious Churchill Scholarship to study at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Zhao is one of only 15 students in the U.S. to receive this award and is the second Churchill Scholar from the U.

“It’s a common perception that skill in mathematics is only due to talent, but hard work counts for much more,” said Zhao. “Having mentors is also extremely helpful, and I am indebted to many faculty members, graduate students and engineers for their guidance and encouragement.”

Zhao was drawn to math at an early age. Through an “Art of Problem Solving” online course he was introduced to number theory. He likens this first encounter to how the Hubble Space Telescope revealed thousands of ancient galaxies in what appeared to be a small, blank patch of the night sky.

In high school, he attended the Canada/USA Mathcamp and took math courses at the U. Upon graduating he was awarded a fouryear Eccles Scholarship – supported by the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation–to continue his studies at the U.

In his freshman year at the U, Zhao took a yearlong reading course exploring algebraic number theory with Gordan Savin, a professor in mathematics. He continued his studies by taking reading courses with

Dragan Milicic, a professor in mathematics, and graduate courses in algebraic geometry, number theory, and representation theory. “We often have discussions on various topics related to these courses. I was always impressed that talking to Mike feels more like talking with a colleague and not a student,” said Milicic.

Zhao has also done research in computer science. In the summer of 2015, he participated in the Research in Industrial Projects for Students Program held on the campus of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. His project used computer vision techniques to create a logo recognition application for Android phones. In spring 2016, he was awarded the prestigious Barry Goldwater scholarship for excellence in STEM research.

This past summer, Zhao was an intern at Google. He developed a software-testing framework that allowed engineers to select exactly the servers they needed to handle login action in their software tests, thereby reducing computer memory usage and server startup times. “He is on a path to becoming a very powerful figure in whatever industry he chooses,” said Tyler Sellmayer, Zhao’s supervisor at Google. “His superpower is the ability to hold an enormous abstract structure in his head, and to speak intelligently about any aspect of it at any time.”

Currently, Zhao is working on his Honor’s thesis in number theory. His thesis advisor, Gordan Savin, says of Zhao: “Mike is one of the strongest undergraduate students we have had since I have been at the University of Utah, more than 20 years. For someone his age, he already has an incredible level of maturity and mathematical knowledge.”

Zhao will use the Churchill Scholarship to pursue a Master of Advanced Study in Pure Mathematics at Cambridge starting in the fall. Upon completion, Zhao plans to come back to the U.S. to complete his doctorate in mathematics focusing on number theory. “It wasn’t easy to choose in what area I wanted to specialize, even within computer science and mathematics, since they were all very exciting. Only by trying many different things – an internship, several research projects – was I able to make a decision,” said Zhao. Zhao aspires to become a professor, and hopes to make contributions to pure mathematics through research and teaching.

“Many times, pure mathematics research found its way to important applications, such as cryptography, relativity and GPS. From a different perspective, I believe research is important since it enriches society just as much as art, literature or philosophy,” said Zhao.

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. The Churchill Scholarship has been called “the most academically challenging of the U.K. scholarships.”

2016 Churchill Scholar

Mackenzie SimperSalt Lake City native and senior in mathematics at the University of Utah, has received the prestigious Churchill Scholarship to study at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Simper becomes one of only 15 students nationally to receive this award and is the first Churchill Scholar for the University of Utah.

“Mackenzie’s receipt of the Churchill Scholarship marks a tremendous milestone for the university. As our first Churchill Scholar, we have no doubt that she will be an excellent representative of our university and state. Mackenzie has forged the path for other U Churchill Scholars to follow,” said the U’s Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Ruth Watkins.

The Churchill Scholarship, established in 1963 at the request of Sir 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 University of Utah was recently added to the foundation in spring 2014. The scholarship has been called “the most academically challenging of the U.K. scholarships.”

“The process of applying was intense, but it was very beneficial for me to think about what I want to do in the future. I am also grateful to the people who I met throughout the process and the many opportunities the math department has provided.  I am excited to go to Cambridge and be the U’s first Churchill scholar,” said Simper

Simper initially planned to attend medical school, which prompted her decision to double major in mathematics and biology at Salt Lake Community College. She soon realized, though, that math was a spectacular field with many applications and areas to explore. When she transferred to the University of Utah in fall 2014, she knew that math was the subject she wanted to pursue.

“Math is so much fun. My research has allowed me to work on problems that truly interest me, and has shown me the connections between different areas of math.  Any student who is excited by math should try doing research, because it is a chance to experience math in a completely different way than in the classroom,” said Simper.

Under the direction of Tom Alberts, assistant professor in mathematics at the University of Utah, Simper has worked on two research projects over the past year and half. One focused on the stochastic heat equation on Markov Chains. The second studied the Bak-Sneppen model, a simplified model of evolution that incorporates natural selection and spatial interaction between species. She is currently writing up the results of this second project for publication.

“I’m proud to have called her my student and research collaborator, just as the mathematics department as a whole is proud of her as one of our best students ever,” said Alberts.

Simper continued her research experience this past summer on aNational Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates fellowship, where she did research with Bjorn Sandstede, a professor in applied mathematics at Brown University. Her project focused on dynamical systems with noise, studying them both analytically and numerically. This research was the basis for another publication in progress and was the focus of a presentation she gave to the University of Utah Department of Mathematics.

Sandstede said that Simper’s “intellectual achievements are outstanding; she is passionate about mathematics and is one of the most creative and advanced undergraduate students I have known and worked with during my career.”

Recently, Simper was awarded the Alice T. Schafer Prize for Undergraduate Women in Mathematics, which highlights one outstanding undergraduate woman nationally who demonstrates high quality of performance in advanced mathematics course, a real interest in mathematics and an ability for independent work.

Simper will use the Churchill Scholarship to pursue a Master of Advanced Study in Pure Mathematics at the University of Cambridge starting in the fall.  Don Tucker, professor in math at the University of Utah and mentor to Simper, said, “She will be a credit to our nation both as a scholar and as a person.” Upon completion, Simper plans to come back to the U.S. to complete her doctorate in mathematics.

Simper aspires to become a professor, and hopes through research and teaching to inspire students to realize math is more than just solving equations, it is all around them. Alberts, described Simper as such: “Mackenzie has tremendous faith in the ability of mathematics research to make important contributions to humanity and to improve the lives of others.”