Baylor Junior Named Goldwater Scholar

June 9, 2010
News Photo 4898Rachel Wilkerson

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Baylor University junior Rachel L. Wilkerson, a University Scholar from Lubbock, Texas, has been selected to receive the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, the premier undergraduate award in the United States and its territories in the fields of mathematics, the natural sciences and engineering.

Wilkerson was one of only 278 selected as a Goldwater Scholar on the basis of academic merit out of the more than 1,100 math, science and engineering students nominated by the faculties at colleges and universities nationwide. The one- and two-year scholarships will cover the cost of tuition, fees, books, and room and board up to a maximum of $7,500 per year.

"My physics professor, Dr. Jeffrey Olafsen, encouraged me to apply," said Wilkerson, who has focused her studies on applied math and physics. "I was humbled and surprised [that I was selected]. I'm excited about the opportunities the scholarship presents. The Goldwater is a grant that funds undergraduate research, so I will finish my senior project with Dr. Olafsen in nonlinear dynamics."

Nearly all of the Goldwater recipients intend to obtain a Ph.D. as their degree objective, as does Wilkerson, who aspires to earn a doctorate in applied mathematics/masters in developmental studies. She said she hopes to conduct research in nonlinear dynamics and use the science of complex systems to study slums and design projects for a non-governmental organization. (Read more about Rachel Wilkerson in a Baylor Magazine feature on "Faces of Baylor.")

"Rachel's commitment to research and to advanced studies are the characteristics that the Goldwater program seeks," said Dr. Ann Rushing, professor of biology and Baylor's Goldwater representative.

In addition to her physics research with Olafsen, Wilkerson participated last summer in a highly competitive Research Experiences for Undergraduates Program, funded by the National Science Foundation, at the McDonald Observatory through the University of Texas at Austin. That experience allowed her to present a poster of her work at the American Astronomical Society Conference this past January. She spend the spring semester in Hungary in the Budapest Semester in Mathematics program, another highly competitive program, where she studied with outstanding mathematics students from around the world.

Though her academic concentration is in the areas of applied math and physics, Wilkerson said she chose Baylor because of the course flexibility the University Scholars program provided. The program allows outstanding students to tailor their own curriculum that will meet long-term academic goals.

"As a University Scholar, Rachel is not classified as a physics major, but is a more interdisciplinary student, able to effectively create her own curriculum," said Dr. Jeffrey Olafsen, associate professor of physics in Baylor's College of Arts and Sciences.

"While this would be of concern for some students, it is extremely beneficial to Rachel, as she has academic interests that would otherwise 'fall between the cracks' of traditional university programs. Rachel's interests include, but are not limited to, the interplay of mathematics and physics to a degree that goes beyond a simple double-major," Olafsen said. "Indeed, it is Rachel's interests in physics, math and art that brought her to work on research with my laboratory in nonlinear dynamics for understanding the problem of mixing in physical systems."

Wilkerson said Baylor's faculty "sets it apart as a university," with appreciation to Rushing, Olafsen, Elizabeth Vardaman, associate dean for special academic projects, and Dr. Frank H. Mathis, professor of mathematics and associate dean for sciences, all in Baylor's College of Arts and Sciences, for their support.

Mathis said he would rank Wilkerson among the top five out of about 120 undergraduate mathematics majors he has known over the past 10 years.

"Rachel has impressed me with the depth and breadth of her studies, her aptitude for science and mathematics, and her keen interest in scholarship," Mathis said. "She has developed a definite research program, something that most students do not accomplish until graduate school, and I expect her to be successful in whatever academic area she engages."

Goldwater Scholars have very impressive academic qualifications that have garnered the attention of prestigious post-graduate fellowship programs. Recent Goldwater Scholars have been awarded 73 Rhodes Scholarships, 105 Marshall Awards, 90 Churchill Scholarships (9 of the 14 awarded in the United States in 2010), and numerous other distinguished fellowships.

The Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Program was authorized by the United States Congress in 1986 to honor Senator Barry M. Goldwater, who served his country for 56 years as a soldier and statesman, including 30 years of service in the U.S. Senate. The Scholarship Program was designed to foster and encourage outstanding students to pursue careers in the fields of mathematics, the natural sciences and engineering.

In its 24-year history, the Foundation has awarded 6,079 scholarships worth approximately $58 million dollars.

For more information, visit the Goldwater Scholarship website.

For more information about scholarship opportunities at Baylor, visit the Office of National and International Scholarships.

Media contact: Lori Fogleman, director of media communications, (254) 710-6275

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