Three Science Students Win Goldwater Scholarships

Seated, Michael Abramczyk, left and Kevin Burgio. Standing, Alex Meeske, left, and Rory Coleman. Photo by Frank Dahlmeyer
Seated, Michael Abramczyk, left and Kevin Burgio. Standing, Alex Meeske, left, and Rory Coleman. Photo by Frank Dahlmeyer

Three students in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences have won prestigious Goldwater Scholarships to further their studies toward doctorates in the sciences.

Michael Abramczyk, a double major in physics and philosophy; Kevin Burgio, an ecology and evolutionary biology major; and Alexander Meeske, a molecular and cell biology major, are among 278 students nationwide who won 2009 Goldwater awards. A fourth CLAS student, Rory Coleman, a molecular and cell biology major, won honorable mention.

“I knew we had a strong applicant pool, and I’m thrilled they were recognized,” says Jill Deans, director of the Office of National Scholarships at UConn, who shepherded the applications.

The Goldwater awards were established by Congress in 1986 in honor of former Senator Barry Goldwater to encourage outstanding students to pursue careers in mathematics, the natural sciences, and engineering.

The one- and two-year scholarships of up to $7,500 per year are considered the premier undergraduate award in these fields. Winners often go on to win Rhodes Scholarships and Marshall Awards.

This year, other schools with three Goldwater winners include California Institute of Technology, the University of Florida, Oberlin College, Northwestern University, the University of Colorado at Boulder, and the University of Rhode Island.

The field of potential candidates at UConn was extremely strong, says Deans. All four UConn nominees are students in the Honors Program and also University Scholars, UConn’s highest academic distinction.

Abramczyk, who won an honorable mention in last year’s Goldwater competition, is “doggedly persistent in asking questions about how the universe works,” says Deans.

Abramczyk, 24, took some time off before entering UConn, but he came in knowing that he wanted to study physics and philosophy. He contacted his future physics advisor, associate professor Thomas Blum, before his freshman year to find out about doing undergraduate research.

“I’m particularly interested in the philosophy of science – how do we know the things that we say are true in science,” he says. His University Scholar advisor in philosophy is associate professor Anne Hiskes, who is also director of research ethics and education for stem cell research at UConn.

“I enjoy learning things,” says Abramczyk, who plans to pursue a Ph.D. His research in Blum’s laboratory is in the area of particle physics, using supercomputers to understand the interactions of quarks and gluons, fundamental particles that compose the ordinary matter of the universe.

The research comes at an exciting time for particle physicists looking to make sense of new experiments, which may point to basic physical laws that go beyond the picture of nature that has dominated for decades, says Blum.

Burgio, whose research subject is Monk Parakeets, had never taken an ornithology course until last spring, when he began working with his advisor in EEB, associate professor Margaret Rubega, the state ornithologist. Burgio, who will be 31 soon, redirected his career into biology research after serving in the Air Force for six years.

He had planned to become a dentist, drawing on his Air Force training in combat medicine and as a dental hygienist. He also worked as a dental assistant at a public health clinic in Willimantic.

A neurological condition that caused his hands to shake led to a change of plans. He had been a casual birdwatcher, and one day, contemplating his changed future, saw an American Woodcock struggling in the snow outside his bedroom window.

“I had an epiphany,” he says. He put together his love of the outdoors and his interest in birds and bore into his new studies.

His current project, which he expects to continue into his Ph.D. research, is to learn about the nest-building habits of Monk Parakeets. These South American natives were released by pet owners and are now building large nests on power poles in Connecticut and other northeastern states, causing power disruptions and even fires.

Burgio has gained the cooperation of United Illuminating, which has been at the center of a controversial effort to get rid of the birds, getting access to examine the nests that are removed. He spends hours observing the birds and collecting data.

He also had a National Science Foundation REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) fellowship last summer, when he began his research.

Meeske started his research in molecular and cell biology with associate professor Adam Zweifach in August 2007, and spent the following summer in a research internship at Pfizer in Groton. His interest is in the cells of the immune system. He studies the signaling process that allows cells to release potent enzymes that have a role in eliminating infection.

He started out as a pre-med student, but decided he was more interested in science than in patient interaction.

“As a kid, I had all these books on dinosaurs and sea life,” he says. His mother, a nurse, and his stepfather, a highway worker and Vietnamese immigrant, have supported and encouraged his excitement and inspired him to work hard.

He plans to pursue a doctorate in immunology.

Coleman, whose adviser is David Goldhamer, associate professor of molecular and cell biology, says he knew he wanted to do research even before entering UConn. In middle school he won the Connecticut State Science Fair.

A year and a half ago, he began working with postdoctoral associate Betty Lawton in Goldhamer’s laboratory developing a protocol to differentiate human embryonic stem cells into muscle progenitor cells.

Goldhamer is associate director of the UConn Stem Cell Institute, interim director of the Center for Regenerative Biology, and a researcher on one of the Connecticut State Stem Cell Initiative grants.

Coleman says he wants the research he’s doing to have clinical applications for human beings. This week he also learned that he won a Lt. Paul L. Drotch, USMC, Class of 1957 Memorial Scholarship in Biological Sciences, an award established in CLAS by UConn Trustee Peter Drotch in memory of his brother.