Univ of Arizona Honors Students Win Churchill Scholarships, Show Value of Undergrad Research

Editor’s Note: This post is by Jill Goetz, Karna Walter, and Emily Kotay of the University Arizona College of Engineering and Honors College and was first published on January 17, 2016, on the UA News site.

Two University of Arizona seniors have won prestigious Churchill Scholarships to complete a one-year master’s degree program at the University of Cambridge in England.

UA College of Engineering majors Travis Sawyer and Jeannie Wilkening, both students in the Honors College, are two of only 15 Churchill Scholars selected in 2016-2017 for outstanding academic achievement and proven research talent in science, engineering or mathematics.

Both are the third and fourth UA students to receive the award since it was first granted by the Winston Churchill Foundation of the United States in 1963.

The UA is able to nominate only two students to apply for the Churchill Scholarship each year, and this year is the first time that both UA nominees have been awarded the scholarship.

Churchill Scholarships range from $50,000 to $60,000 and cover a year of tuition and fees at Cambridge University’s Churchill College. Scholars also receive travel and living allowances and may get additional funding for presentations at international conferences and visits to other universities.

Capturing Magic From Van Gogh’s Paintings

Sawyer is majoring in optical sciences and engineering, a program jointly administered by the College of Optical Sciences and College of Engineering. He is developing visual recognition software using different wavelengths, such as infrared and X-ray, to help scientists capture more detailed images for making discoveries in fields as different as art preservation, astronomy and medicine.

Travis Sawyer (photo credit Graeme Hunt)

Travis Sawyer (photo credit Graeme Hunt)

For his master of philosophy, or MPhil, degree in physics, he will conduct research on applying hyperspectral imaging for detecting early-stage cancer with Cambridge scientist Sarah Bohndiek, whose lab is affiliated with the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute.

An Optics Ambassador with a 4.0 grade-point average throughout college, Sawyer came to optics in an unusual way. He was misdiagnosed with leukemia his freshman year and became fascinated with the optical instruments doctors used to examine him and, ultimately, ensure he was healthy.

Sawyer’s rising stardom was recognized in 2014 with a $10,000 Astronaut Scholarship, which he won again in 2015 — a first-ever feat at the UA. In 2015, he also won a Goldwater Scholarship, and his UA student team won the Robert S. Hilburn Memorial Optical Design Competition for its camera system to be sent to Saturn’s moon Titan.

“Hopefully, I can make a contribution or invent a technology that helps someone in the same way optics helped me,” Travis Sawyer says.

Sawyer credits his research mentors for their guidance. After Cambridge, Sawyer plans to pursue doctoral and postdoctoral work and establish his own research lab as a university professor.

Engineering for a Healthier Planet

Chemical engineering student Jeannie Wilkening studies how human activity affects biogeochemical cycles, the movement of water and other compounds through the atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere. She is particularly interested in how these processes relate to climate change and in developing models for more environmentally sustainable technologies.

“My experiences over the past four years have been instrumental in getting me to this point. I’ve been surrounded by incredible faculty, friends and classmates who have supported me, challenged me and taught me so much,”  Wilkening says.

Jeannie Wilkenning (photo courtesy Univ of Arizona College of Engineering)

Jeannie Wilkening (photo courtesy Univ of Arizona College of Engineering)

For her MPhil in earth sciences, she will conduct research with Cambridge scientist Alexandra Turchyn on carbon, sulfur and iron cycling in marshes and climate implications.

The Churchill Scholarship is the latest in a string of top honors and internships for Wilkening. She entered the UA as a National Merit Scholar and Flinn Scholar and, like Sawyer, won a Goldwater Scholarship in 2015.

She won a NASA Space Grant and interned at Princeton University and the University of Michigan through the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates Program. She belongs to the Tau Beta Pi and Omega Chi Epsilon engineering honor societies, is an Ambassador for both the Honors College and the College of Engineering and is president of the UA chapter of the Society of Women Engineers.

“Since I was a child, I have been incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by great female role models who instilled a passion in me for science and engineering,” Wilkening said.
One of them was her mother, Betsy Wilkening. After earning her own bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the UA in 1982, she became a popular science teacher at Richard B. Wilson Jr. Middle School. Two of her students there were Wilkening and Sawyer.

After Cambridge, Jeannie Wilkening plans to return to the U.S. to pursue a Ph.D. in environmental engineering and then an academic career, teaching and conducting research.

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Honors College, Honors Program? Prestigious Scholarships, By Category

Of the fifty public universities in our survey, 19 have honors colleges (38%), and 31 have honors programs (62%). Below is comparison showing the number of prestigious undergraduate and graduate scholarships awarded, by category.

For purposes of the comparison, we are using the whole history of Rhodes scholarships; Gates and Marshall scholarships since 2001–2011; Churchill Scholarships since 1963; and all Truman Scholars since 1977. Fulbright scholarships are not included in the comparison because those totals have been adjusted for the size of the undergraduate population and raw numbers would be misleading in this comparison. They will be considered in the final review of programs and colleges.

We considered looking only at awards during the last ten years or so, but decided on a combined approach, using all Rhodes awards, for example, because of their prominence in the public mind and because they are the most difficult to earn, given the small number (32 this year) that are awarded to U.S. students. However, we are only counting more recent Marshall awards, as noted above. Postgraduate awards for UC campuses have been adjusted to take into account the dates on which they commenced operations.

The figures reveal that universities with honors programs have a higher proportion of prestigious scholarship winners than do universities with honors colleges, although the latter come close to proportional equality in the category of undergraduate scholarships. One possible explanation for the greater proportion coming from honors programs is that honors colleges are typically a more recent development in honors education; in some cases, the universities of which they are now a part did not have an existing pattern of receiving a large number of prestigious scholarships before the inception of the honors colleges.

On the other hand, the Goldwater Scholarships (1989) and the Udall Scholarships (1996), both for undergraduate research, are relatively recent additions that have given the newer honors colleges an opportunity to prove their value by over-performing in Udall Scholarships and holding their own in Goldwater Scholarships.

Here are the figures, bearing in mind that Honors Colleges are 38% of our Fifty, and Honors Programs are 62% of the Fifty:

Honors Colleges, Udall Scholarships, 44.1% of the total.
Honors Programs, Udall Scholarships, 55.9% of the total.

Honors Colleges, Goldwater Scholarships, 35.2% of the total.
Honors Programs, Goldwater Scholarships, 64.8% of the total.

Honors Colleges, Postgraduate Scholarships, 31.8% of the total.
Honors Programs, Postgraduate Scholarships, 68.2% of the total.

The Importance of Prestigious Scholarships

Submitted on 2011/11/16 at 10:36 am

How important are prestigious post-graduate scholarships to the process of evaluating honors programs?

The purpose of a strong honors program is to give the brightest students the best possible education so that the students can achieve at a level commensurate with their high ability. The nation’s leading private universities excel at producing Rhodes, Marshall, Truman, Fulbright, Gates, and Churchill scholars, and the academic world associates excellence in academic achievement with the attainment of these prestigious awards. If strong public honors programs hope to make good on the promise of an elite-level education within a large state university, then one measure should be the number of high-profile awards won by students at these universities.

The University of Illinois leads the universities listed among our fifty in awards for Gates Cambridge Scholars and Churchill Scholars. The 90 annual Gates Cambridge awards can be won by students in almost any field of study, but the majority appear to go to scholars in the STEM subjects, education, public health, and law or criminal justice. The Churchill Scholarships, also for study at Cambridge, are only for students in the sciences, engineering, and mathematics. The Churchill Scholarship is valued at $45,000 to $50,000. The Gates Scholarship has about the same value, but it can be granted for the length of time necessary for the degree sought, usually no more than three years (Ph.D).

The University of Virginia ranks first among the fifty in the extremely prestigious Rhodes Scholars category. The University of North Carolina ranks ahead of UT Austin and the University of Virginia in Truman Scholars. Truman scholarships have a value of up to $30,000. Recipients must be “change agents” who will work in government, non-profit, or educational organizations for at least three of the first seven years after completion of a Truman-funded degree. About 60 scholarships are awarded annually, and usually each state has at least one resident who is a recipient. The recipient does not have to be a student at the university within the state of residence, but most are. Seventeen of the fifty universities in our guidebook are Truman Scholarship Honor Institutions, and all over-perform in the scholarship rankings.

The ranking guide to be published in the Spring of 2012 also considers Fulbright awards, although the measure for that award is not in raw numbers but in a proportional figure based on the size of a given university’s undergraduate population. The University of Michigan, however, not only ranks first in the number of Fulbrights granted but also ranks first even after the university’s sizable undergraduate population is taken into account. UCLA and Wisconsin rank second and third, respectively, after raw numbers are adjusted for the size of the undergraduate population.

So does this mean that universities outside the orbit of public elites will not rank highly in the prestigious scholarship category? Actually, the category is most useful in assessing these other universities, especially the extent to which they “over-perform” in relation to their overall ranking in U.S. News or elsewhere. For example, there are universities among the fifty who rank 100 or lower in the U.S. News survey but rank in the top half of the fifty we are reviewing in the prestigious scholarship category. Kansas, Nebraska, Arizona, and Arizona State are examples.