2023 Goldwater Scholarships awarded to 3 UChicago students

College students honored for excellence in math and science with prestigious scholarship

Three University of Chicago undergraduate students have received Barry Goldwater Scholarships, awarded annually based on academic merit and undergraduate research in the natural sciences, mathematics and engineering. 

Cameron Chang, Steven Labalme and Umar Siddiqi are among the 417 U.S. college students to be selected for this award out of a pool of over 5,000 applicants. Considered the preeminent undergraduate award of its kind, the scholarship covers the cost of tuition, fees, books, and room and board up to $7,500 per year. It also helps STEM students fund their research during their final years of undergraduate study.

As third-year students in the College, Chang, Labalme and Siddiqi were supported throughout their Goldwater application process by the College Center for Research and Fellowships as well as by the UChicago Goldwater faculty nomination committee. CCRF supports undergraduates and recent College alumni through highly competitive national and international fellowships.

“The College’s commitment to funding undergraduate research through programs like the Quad Undergraduate Research Scholars program and Dean’s Fund for Research - Conference Travel, helps talented students to compete successfully for major scholarships like Goldwater,” said Dr. Nichole Fazio, associate dean of undergraduate research and scholars programs, and executive director of CCRF. 

Finite and abstract mathematical structures

Cameron Chang was undecided about his studies as a first-year student. He originally thought he would double major in physics and art history. But math classes with Professors John Boller and Alexander Razborov completely changed his mind and reminded him of the joy he felt solving problems and understanding things on a deeper level. 

“I am confident I made the right choice,” he said. “While to an outsider mathematics may seem like a rigid science with arbitrary rules and regulations, to those who study it, it is an art. I love the potential for boundless creativity—there are many different ways to prove something, and often new proofs come with increased intuition as to why something is the way it is.”

The third-year from Orlando, Fla., now aims to pursue a Ph.D. in either combinatorics or algebra, with the eventual goal of becoming a professor in mathematics. He hasn’t decided between the two but is interested in both of them as they pertain to structures, both finite and abstract.

“Combinatorics studies finite structures, and I was first drawn to it when I discovered the surprising complexity of the finite world. The notion of finding structure in randomness is incredibly beautiful to me,” Chang said. “On the other hand, my interest in algebra arose from learning about the beautiful applications and connections that its abstract point of view unearths.”

At UChicago, Chang has found a welcoming community with a strong affinity for mathematics, which he said is rare. This has made it easier for him to become excited about material he’s learning. 

“When I can share the joy of the things I’ve just learned with others, it’s a really great experience for me,” he said.

Chang said he is grateful for the financial support offered by the Goldwater scholarship, which will help supplement his tuition and help him purchase costly textbooks.

“It definitely makes me want to continue working harder and delve deeper into the topics I am researching, as well as learn more math and expand my horizons,” he said. “It’s a super motivating factor, for sure.”

Sustainability through chemistry

Born in San Francisco but raised in Pittsburgh, Steven Labalme credits his AP Chemistry teacher with sparking his interest in the subject. His parents deserve credit too, he said, as socially conscious activists who helped him see chemistry’s potential to solve sustainability problems.

Majoring in chemistry and mathematics, Labalme uses math as a tool for probing chemistry's complexities.

After graduating next school year, he plans to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry, expanding upon his work with Dr. Wenbin Lin on sustainable catalysis, the process of running chemical reactions more efficiently, resulting in less waste and moreeconomic and environmental gains. He intends to further specialize as a postdoctoral researcher before becoming a professor at a research university and starting his own lab. 

Labalme is no stranger to teaching. As a third-year student, he has served as the sole teaching assistant for Thermodynamics, an upper-level chemistry course typically taken by fourth-years. Before that, he served as the Senior TA for the College’s core general chemistry sequence, a role in which he oversaw 20 graduate student lab TAs.

Outside of the College, he volunteers with UChicago’s Neighborhood Schools Program, teaching math and reading at Emmett Till Elementary in nearby West Woodlawn. He is also a Hispanic Scholarship Fund ambassador, which connects him to younger scholars whom he mentors. Through this work, he aims to broaden access to chemistry and other STEM fields.

“I am committed to making positions in my lab available to local students while empowering my mentees to share their knowledge and enthusiasm with the next generation,” he said. “When I leave UChicago, I will do so with knowledge, teaching experience and lab skills that will serve me for the rest of my life.”

For Labalme, this award is an affirmation of years of hard work, both at UChicago and in all of the years before. 

“It is an invitation to continue striving and an invaluable aid to my future graduate school and job applications,” he said. “It is something I will never take off my resume, and I am eternally grateful to those who encouraged me to believe that I could win it and supported me throughout the application process.”

Innovations in cardiac care and transplants

Umar Siddiqi grew up in Elmhurst, Ill., just outside of Chicago. As a middle schooler, he built and raced balsa wood planes modeled after different kinds of birds, to test which species was best shaped for speed. In finding that the swift’s wing design was most optimal, he learned a valuable lesson about biologically inspired design and its applications. 

Now a third-year student in the College studying biological sciences with a specialization in immunology, he aims to someday combine medicine with research to develop unprecedented health solutions. He chose biology due to his interest in cardiac surgery and multi-organ transplants.  

Siddiqi, who is on a pre-medical track, has a personal connection to heart failure as well, having first investigated to care for his ailing grandparents. Determined to help them, he began to research left ventricular assist devices while still in high school. Realizing that there were many issues with blood flow dynamics in existing devices, he has independently worked on redesigning and improving them over the past several years. 

Under the mentorship of Dr. Valluvan Jeevanandam, the chief of cardiac surgery at the University of Chicago Medical Center, Siddiqi has worked on numerous projects that have been peer reviewed, he has presented at international conferences, and his research has been published in leading journals. 

“As I’ve continued my journey, I’ve met many incredible patients who face heart failure, and their stories drive me to continue pursuing my passion for both mechanical circulatory support devices and multi-organ transplants,” he said. “I hope that my work in developing the next generation of ventricular assist devices will offer otherwise ineligible patients a chance at recovery.”

He is also involved with UChicago’s Hibino Lab, where he works on clinical projects as well as simulation modeling of cardiovascular anatomy. Outside of his research pursuits, he volunteers at Comer Children’s Hospital, the Washington Park Free Clinic, and hospice facilities near campus.

“I am humbled and honored to have been selected as a Goldwater scholar. Receiving this award is a tribute to my caring family and the incredible mentors who have pushed me to reach this point, notably Dr. Jeevanandam, Dr. Hibino, and Dr. Schonbaum,” Siddiqi said. “Without their guidance and support, I would not have been able to develop the research aptitude and nurture my passion for medical innovation in the way I have been able to up until this point.”

This story originally appeared on the UChicago College website.