Striking Goldwater

UMBC has its strongest showing ever in a prestigious scholarship program.

UMBC has a national reputation for the strength of its undergraduate research offerings. It creates a campus energy directed in pursuit of discovery that is contagious–even for freshman.

That energy attracted Michael Moubarek's attention and inspired him to become involved in research almost three years ago, when he was a UMBC freshman. After hearing upperclassmen discuss their experiences and seeing flyers advertising research opportunities, Moubarek approached Charles Bieberich, a professor of biological sciences. He soon started working on prostate cancer research in Bieberich’s lab and continues to do so today. “There’s an atmosphere of research that just buzzes around here,” he says.

And that early start on discovering what research is about pays off. Moubarek '15, biochemistry and molecular biology, and Akua Nimarko ’15, biological sciences and psychology, recently won prestigious 2014 Barry Goldwater Scholarships. Talmo Pereira ’15, bioinformatics and computational biology, received an honorable mention in the competition.

The Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Program is the premier national scholarship for undergraduates in science, engineering and mathematics. It was established by Congress in 1986 to increase research capacity in the United States. The Goldwater Scholarship is intensely competitive. Fewer than 300 awardees are selected out of over 1,500 applicants, with a maximum of four winners allowed from each university.

All three UMBC students recognized by the Goldwater program this year credit their success to participation in hands-on research early in their college career. The lab experience they received at UMBC played a large role in their Goldwater applications.

“I'm so grateful for these opportunities at UMBC that have allowed me to apply for this scholarship,” says Nimarko.

Nimarko and Pereira were attracted to UMBC because of the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, which supports students who aspire to research careers. Nimarko has researched sensory neuroscience in the lab of Weihong Lin, an associate professor of biological sciences, while Pereira worked with Ivan Erill, an assistant professor of biological sciences, studying computational genomics.

“Every step of my college career has had many professors and mentors who were instrumental to my success, all of whom I am profoundly grateful for,” Pereira says.

The foundation in research they received at UMBC has been the springboard for all three students to pursue opportunities in renowned labs around the country.

Nimarko spent last summer at Columbia University researching proteins related to stress with Eric Kandel, a Nobel Prize winner who is also a professor of biochemistry and biophysics in Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. Pereira participated in the MIT Summer Research Program studying connectomics, a subfield of neuroscience, and he has extended his stay at MIT at the request of lead researcher Sebastian Seung, a professor of computational neuroscience. Moubarek continues to collaborate with Bieberich on work conducted at a Johns Hopkins University lab, and he has published research in the journal Cancer Cell.

Eight UMBC students have been recognized by Goldwater since 2008, and this year marks the second time that UMBC has had two winners in the same year. Previous winners include Carla Valenzuela ’10, biological sciences, who is studying to be an M.D. at Vanderbilt University; Geoffrey Clapp '11, mathematics and computer science, who is pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Maryland, College Park; Nathaniel Kim ’11, chemistry and political science, who is pursuing a Ph.D. at Columbia University; and Robert Wardlow II ’12, biochemistry and molecular biology, who is working on a M.D./Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins.

Simon Stacey, director of the Honors College and chair of UMBC's Goldwater Selection Committee, hopes to increase UMBC's participation in the scholarship program.

“We want to grow the number of people who express an interest and complete an application for the scholarship,” Stacey observes. “UMBC, with its strengths in the sciences, could easily have 15 students complete strong applications for Goldwater.”