Three undergraduates awarded Goldwater Scholarships to support STEM education

Alexandra Masegian, Julius Tabin and Claudia Yao honored for excellence in math and science

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

Second-year Alexandra Masegian and third-years Julius Tabin and Claudia Yao are among the 409 U.S. college students to be selected for this award—the preeminent undergraduate award of its kind in these fields—which covers the cost of tuition, fees, books, and room and board up to $7,500 per year.

The scholarship also helps STEM students fund their research during their final years of undergraduate study.

Astrophysics and the stellar life cycle

Alexandra Masegian, a second-year astrophysics major and English and creative writing minor, has been passionate about space since she was young. That fascination has led her to a range of eye-opening research projects.

While in high school, Masegian was selected as an astrophysics research intern at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She completed a project on the spectral analysis of a rare population of evolved stars and presented her work at major scientific conferences.

“The fusion processes that take place in the cores of stars, as well as the nearly instantaneous reactions that occur when massive stars go supernova, are the source of every atom of matter in our universe,” she said. “Studying the stellar life cycle can therefore teach us important information about how our universe has formed and evolved.”

More recently, she worked with Yuanyuan Zhang at UChicago-affiliated Fermilab on characterizing the density profiles of galaxy clusters as a probe for testing different theories on dark matter and the evolution of galaxies. She has also worked in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics with Prof. Wendy Freedman to investigate the stellar initial mass function of distant elliptical galaxies.

After completing her bachelor’s degree, Masegian plans to pursue a Ph.D. in astrophysics and hopes to work as a planetarium or museum curator or conduct research at a national laboratory.

“The Goldwater Scholars community is a veritable wealth of information about everything from fellowship and graduate school applications to navigating postdoctoral positions and academic conferences,” Masegian said. “I plan to take full advantage of those resources as my career in astrophysics unfolds.”

Genetics of animal behavior

Third-year Julius Tabin was first inspired to pursue biology, which he is double majoring in along with Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, by his father, who is a geneticist and an alum of the College at UChicago.

When he was 11, Tabin started working in his father’s lab, where he studied the temperature preference of blind cavefish. That project sparked an interest in science and animal behavior, which he has maintained ever since.

“A book I really love is The Study of Instinct by Nikolaas Tinbergen, which is all about animal behavior,” Tabin said. “I want to study behavior and how it evolved genetically. It's such a fascinating subject and there's so much we don't know yet."

At UChicago, Tabin has been working on a research project with Prof. Neil Shubin that involves using single-cell analysis to investigate the diversity of fish fins. He is also conducting his own research for a thesis on the morphology of Hieratic script, a cursive form of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

“I'm very proud I got the grant,” he said. “There are plenty of people who are doing really interesting, creative research around the country. The fact that they chose me out of that group is definitely an honor.”

After completing his undergraduate education, he plans to obtain a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology, complete a postdoctoral appointment, and hopes to become a professor and researcher.

Topology and visual mathematics

Claudia Yao, a third-year mathematics major, describes her STEM journey as the opposite of straightforward. Growing up, she never saw herself becoming a STEM student, let alone researcher; instead, she wanted to be an architect, designer or artist. That changed in her junior year of high school, when she took a college-level physics class and saw how mathematics could be applied to describe the physical world.

Yao went on to complete advanced coursework and research in both theoretical and experimental physics during her first two years at UChicago, working toward becoming a physicist.  

Yao also took classes in topology—the study of shapes and spaces—which she found she could apply to her research in theoretical condensed matter physics. At the end of her second year, she decided to change her major to mathematics so she could study topology, which she said she finds mathematically interesting and sophisticated, and also reunites her with her childhood passion for art.

“In topology, visualization is an important tool that helps provide the mathematical argument with intuition and transparency,” she said. “There is almost always a connection between the proof and ‘the picture.’ I love visualizing things and find this interaction between pictures and proofs beautiful and natural.”

After completing her bachelor’s degree, Yao plans to pursue a Ph.D. in geometric or algebraic topology and then pursue a postdoctoral position, with the goal of becoming a faculty member in mathematics.

Masegian, Tabin and Yao were supported throughout their Goldwater application process by the College Center for Research and Fellowships (CCRF), as well as by the UChicago Goldwater nomination committee. CCRF supports undergraduates and recent College alumni through highly competitive national and international fellowships. 

—A version of this story is also available on the University of Chicago College website