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Goldwater Scholars
Commonwealth Honors College students secure support for research
UMass Amherrst students Tara Mahendrarajah and Matthew Stevens

The Goldwater Schoalrship is  designed to foster and encourage outstanding students to pursue careers in mathematics, the natural sicences, and engineering.

Two Commonwealth Honors College students 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. 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 to increase renewable resources and diminish the environmental impact that results from the generation of current biofuels.

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

Mahendrarajah plans to go 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 since his freshman year in 2008. Conducting independent research for James Chambers, chemistry, Stevens initially focused on design and synthesis of novel photo removable protective cages of neurologically active compounds. In his current research, he 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 photo switchable N-heterocyclic carbenes, which are thermodynamically stable carbenes whose reactivity can be switched on and off using different  wavelengths of light,” he explains.

After his undergraduate studies, Stevens intends to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry with a concentration in organic synthesis. 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,” says Dhandapani Venkataraman, associate professor of chemistry.

The campus submitted four student applications for the Goldwater Scholarships, according to Susan Whitbourne, professor of psychology and director of the Office of National Scholarship Advisement. 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 says, “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.”

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