Two UMass Amherst Juniors Awarded Prestigious Goldwater Scholarships

AMHERST, Mass. - Two Commonwealth Honors College students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have been awarded prestigious Goldwater Scholarships. Tara Mahendrarajah, of Framingham, a junior microbiology major, and Matthew Stevens, of Germantown, Md., a junior chemistry major, are among 275 sophomores and juniors nationwide to receive the scholarship for the 2011-12 academic year.

Goldwater Scholars are selected on the basis of academic merit. This year, 1,095 science, mathematics, and engineering students from colleges and universities nationwide were nominated for the award by faculty. The one- and two-year scholarships cover the cost of tuition, fees, books, room and board up to $7,500 per year.

Since 2009, Mahendrarajah has been working with microbiology Professor Jeffrey Blanchard and his research group to learn anaerobic techniques, High Performance Liquid Chromatography methods for analyzing products, and electron microscopy to examine microbes that can synthesize ethanol. Her research contributes to a broader understanding of biofuel production and carbon cycling, which could lead to new technologies that will increase renewable resources and decrease the environmental impact that results from current biofuels generation.

She was also recently selected to the UMass Amherst College of Natural Sciences Leadership Committee, and previously served as a member and ambassador of the Biology Talent Advancement Program.

Mahendrarajah plans to continue on to graduate school, to earn a Ph.D. in microbiology and biochemistry. She wants to continue her research on environmental microbiology, with emphasis on clean energy alternatives.

"I plan to conduct research to contribute to the development of cost-efficient renewable energy sources," said Mahendrarajah. "I hope to work for the Department of Energy, supervising a research laboratory in combination with teaching at the university level."

Stevens has been involved with research on the Amherst campus since his freshmen year in 2008. Conducting independent research for James Chambers in the department of chemistry, Stevens’ research initially focused on design and synthesis of novel photoremovable protective cages of neurologically-active compounds. In his current research, Stevens uses computational pharmacophore modeling to design drugs that may improve cognitive function in those who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease.

Last summer, Stevens conducted research as an American Chemical Society intern in science and engineering at Humboldt University of Berlin. "For three months I designed, synthesized, and tested novel photoswitchable N-heterocyclic carbenes (NHCs), which are thermodynamically stable carbenes whose reactivity can be switched on and off using different wavelengths of light," he said.

Stevens intends to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry with a concentration in organic synthesis after his undergraduate studies. Ultimately, he plans to teach at the university level while leading a research group of his own.

"I see in Matthew Stevens a bright, brilliant synthetic organic chemist who will tackle the synthesis of important molecules for drug discovery," said Dhandapani Venkataraman, associate professor of chemistry.

UMass Amherst submitted four student applications for the Goldwater Scholarships, according to Susan Whitbourne, professor of psychology and director of the Office of National Scholarship Advisement (ONSA). Each nominee was required to submit an application, an essay describing academic and career plans, a research proposal, and three letters of reference. Selection by the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation was based on the application materials.

Whitbourne said, "I am delighted that Tara and Matt were recognized for their outstanding research accomplishments. The awarding of two Goldwater Scholarships is testimony to the excellent opportunities our campus offers to undergraduates."

The Goldwater Scholarship honors Senator Barry M. Goldwater and is the premier undergraduate award designed to foster and encourage outstanding students to pursue careers in the fields of mathematics, the natural sciences, and engineering. Since its first award in 1989, the Goldwater Foundation has bestowed over 6,600 scholarships worth approximately $50 million. Goldwater Scholars have gone on to be awarded 77 Rhodes Scholarships, 108 Marshall Awards and other prestigious fellowships.

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