Two Baylor Undergraduate Researchers Awarded Prestigious Goldwater Scholarships

Alexis Simmons, a senior physics and mathematics major from Houston, Texas, and Kate Rojales, a senior chemistry major from Milton, Georgia, have been named Goldwater Scholars. (Baylor Marketing & Communications)
June 21, 2021

Third year in a row for two Baylor students to win the prestigious STEM undergraduate award

Media Contact: Eric Eckert, Baylor University Media and Public Relations, 254-710-1964
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WACO, Texas (June 21, 2021) – Baylor University students Kate Rojales, a senior chemistry major from Milton, Georgia, and Alexis Simmons, a senior physics and mathematics major from Houston, Texas, have been awarded Goldwater Scholarships from the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Program.

This is the third consecutive year that two Baylor students have received the Goldwater Scholarship, one of the most prestigious undergraduate scholarships given in the natural sciences, engineering and mathematics that encourages outstanding students to pursue careers in STEM fields. The scholarship honors the lifetime work of Sen. Barry Goldwater, who served his country for 56 years as a soldier and statesman, including 30 years in the U.S. Senate.

“I’m pleased with our efforts to provide more visibility to this opportunity for all Baylor students and the results we have obtained by doing more to recruit applicants for this program,” said Jeffrey Olafsen, Ph.D., associate professor of physics and the Baylor Goldwater faculty representative. “We’re competing against every other big-name school in Texas and across the country, and our students are succeeding by receiving these scholarships.” 

Over the past decade, the number of Baylor’s Goldwater Scholarships has grown from about one recipient every other year to averaging one student per year. Olafsen said Rojales and Simmons began applying when they were sophomores, and that experience helped them earn the honor.

“I’m proud of Kate and Alexis’ tenacity,” Olafsen said. “The experience of applying makes one a better competitor. Kate and Alexis were both strong nominees as sophomores and became even stronger nominees as juniors and represented Baylor well at the national level. I wish we could nominate every student every year because it would not only make our job easier in selecting the nominees, but I think every Baylor student has a compelling story to tell with their application.”

Goal to become a professor and mentor

Rojales is majoring in chemistry, but she’s also a member of Baylor’s Honors Program and is pursuing minors in Great Texts and religion.

“I came to Baylor because of Baylor's caring community, commitment to the Christian faith and excellence in undergraduate research. Baylor is a special place where all of these values can flourish together,” Rojales said.

During her freshman year, Rojales began working with Caleb Martin, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry, in his inorganic chemistry research lab. Her research focused on the synthesis of novel boratabenzene transition metal complexes.

Rojales spent summer 2019 working for Jeffrey Urbauer, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry at the University of Georgia, as part of the Summer Undergraduate Research Opportunity (SURO) program, where she studied the purification and characterization of the G-alpha protein.

To combine her interests in both science and the humanities, Rojales’ Honors thesis focuses on the ideas of the “good life” as conveyed in modern scientific research practices. She is researching her thesis under the guidance of Eric Martin, Ph.D., associate professor of the history and philosophy of science and assistant director of the University Scholars Program at Baylor.

“I am beyond grateful to all who have mentored, taught and supported me so far in my research, from professors to lab mates and countless others who have believed in me,” Rojales said. “I am especially grateful to my research mentors, Dr. Caleb Martin and Dr. Jeffrey Urbauer, who have welcomed me into their labs and pushed me to grow as a scientist, as well as Dr. Tom McGrath, who has always encouraged me in my love of chemistry. A big thanks also goes to Dr. Jeffrey Olafsen and Dr. Daniel Benyousky for coordinating the Goldwater Scholarship here at Baylor and helping us all find our voices to tell our stories.”

Rojales said she plans to attend graduate school to earn a doctorate in chemistry with the goal of becoming a professor to teach, conduct research and mentor students. Before doing so, however, she said she would like to pursue a master’s degree in philosophy of science in the United Kingdom.

Research to improve patient wellbeing

Alexis Simmons is a McNair Scholar at Baylor and plans to pursue a doctorate and conduct research in medical physics.

“I chose to study at Baylor because I felt that I would not only receive a well-rounded education, but that my experience at Baylor would also help me to grow as a person,” Simmons said. “Now, as a rising senior at Baylor, I feel that my Baylor experience has both challenged me academically and helped to prepare me for the rigors of pursuing a career in research.

“I hope to one day impact medicine and improve patient wellbeing through research in medical imaging,” she said.

Olafsen serves as Simmons’ research mentor. They develop imaging techniques to measure traumatic brain injury (TBI) via MRI scans obtained in their lab. They are working collaboratively with Erica Bruce, Ph.D., associate professor of environmental science, to examine the generational effects of on the offspring of rats that have suffered such an injury. The research uses MRI scans and histology to study the physical brain structure of the rats and track brain damage and abnormalities in the parental generation and their offspring.

“I’ve really learned a lot from Dr. Olafsen and the physics professors at Baylor,” Simmons said. “The classes I’ve taken have really stretched me as a scholar and the research experience I’ve gained has been invaluable in shaping my research interests.”

In addition, Simmons worked for two summers at MD Anderson as an undergraduate summer research intern in the department of imaging physics through the CPRIT-CURE Undergraduate Research Program.

Simmons worked in the Morfeus Lab under the mentorship of Kristy Brock, Ph.D., and Anne-Cecile Lesage, Ph.D. Her first summer, she worked with Lesage to quantitatively compare the ability of different finite element methods in predicting intraoperative brain deformation (also called brain shift) in neurosurgery patients with brain tumors. During her second summer, she worked with Lesage to build and examine the accuracy of patient-specific viscoelastic finite element models in predicting brain shift.

Simmons said the ultimate goal from this ongoing research is to create a finite element model that can accurately predict how a patient’s brain will deform during surgery.

“This would decrease the need for intraoperative scans and shorten the time spent in surgery, which could potentially improve surgical outcomes,” she said.

Transformational undergraduate education

Baylor students who seek a rich – even extraordinary – undergraduate education are supported by Baylor’s Office of Engaged Learning, which partners with students, in collaboration with faculty and staff throughout the University, to help them maximize their scholarship beyond the classroom. Students are supported as they apply and compete for prestigious scholarships, fellowships, internships and research experiences at the national and international level, including the Fulbright, Truman, Gates Cambridge, Boren and Rhodes, and for other notable awards, such as the Goldwater, Pickering, Critical Language Scholarship and National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU).

ABOUT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY

Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 19,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 90 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.

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