Three undergraduates awarded Goldwater Scholarships to support STEM education

Third-years Spencer Dembner, Vennela Mannava and Thomas Propson honored

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

Third-years Spencer Dembner, Vennela Mannava and Thomas Propson are among the 396 U.S. college students to be selected for this award, which provides scholarships of up to $7,500 a year to help cover the cost of tuition, fees and living expenses. This scholarship helps STEM students fund their research during their final years of undergraduate study.

"We extend our warm congratulations to Spencer, Vennela and Thomas for this significant recognition by the Goldwater Foundation," said John W. Boyer, dean of the College. "Their commitment to research shows how our STEM-focused students can apply their impressive academic work to the concerns and progress of their fields."

Chemistry with community impact

A chemistry major with minors in statistics and classical studies, Mannava is committed to developing sustainable methods for energy conversion.

“Renewable energy is a major necessity in the modern world, and bioinorganic chemistry tools could help us to understand and to emulate natural systems that already govern those processes efficiently,” she said.

Mannava’s interest in research began during a high school internship at an organic chemistry lab at Boston University. Since then, she has remained passionate about finding creative solutions to societal needs. At UChicago, she has worked in chemist John Anderson’s lab to develop nickel catalysts for carbon utilization, with hopes of incorporating atmospheric carbon dioxide into the production of common plastics.

Beyond her research pursuits, Mannava is the president of Hindu Student Sangam, a religious student organization providing resources for the campus community to learn about and practice Hinduism. She coordinates acts for underrepresented East and Southeast Asian students in cultural shows such as Sensasia and also volunteers for science education events and other community initiatives.

“I find these activities help me to appreciate, and to communicate with, various communities that might benefit from my research,” Mannava said.

After graduating from the College, Mannava plans to pursue a Ph.D. in bioinorganic chemistry and conduct research at a national laboratory.

The future of quantum computing

Propson has long been fascinated by computers, and from an early age, he has been making and sharing phone software. Since he came to the College, though, he has been focused on problems with profound social impact.

“If I had to summarize my current career goal in a sentence: I want to create technology that improves the quality of people’s lives,” he said.

Propson’s research focuses on achieving practical quantum computing for molecular modeling, which would have broad use for the development of drugs and materials. Through work with computer scientist Fred Chong, Propson helped optimize algorithms for use in quantum computing. This past year, he joined physicist David Schuster’s Lab, where he helps develop techniques to mitigate experimental errors that occur in quantum systems.

Outside the lab, Propson serves as technology lead of Uncommon Hacks, a student organization that hosts workshops and hack-a-thons for students to learn about tech. After graduation, he plans to enroll in a PhD program in applied physics. He is still weighing careers in academia and industry—but he expects the Goldwater Scholars community to be a great resource in this decision.

“There is a wealth of people who have made the transition through graduate school to careers in academia, national labs and industry,” he said. “I expect to take advantage of this community when I am seeking career advice.”

Geometric elegance

Dembner is majoring in mathematics, with plans to pursue a Ph.D. and an academic career as a mathematician. His research interests lie in arithmetic geometry, which is a branch of number theory.

“I’m immensely honored to have received this award,” said Dembner. “The Goldwater will help support my final year of undergraduate study, and it serves as welcome encouragement as I prepare to apply to graduate school and pursue a career in mathematics.”

Dembner has twice participated in the math department’s Research Experience for Undergraduates, a program that allows undergraduates to complete their own research projects, connect with mathematics students and faculty members, write papers, and give talks to their peers. He has served as a mathematics tutor and as a research assistant for Prof. Matthew Emerton on a project about objects in arithmetic geometry known as Shafarevich-Tate groups.

“I love arithmetic geometry because it manages to combine abstractness and elegance with a lot of concrete geometric constructions and ideas,” Dembner said. “It synthesizes ideas from several branches of pure mathematics in an unexpected and satisfying way.”

Dembner, Propson and Wannava received support from the College Center for Research and Fellowships, which facilitates the Goldwater campus nomination process and supports candidates through its rigorous application process.