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Thursday, Sep 23, 2021

Two Mercer students win Goldwater scholarship

Two Mercer University students were recently declared the 2017 recipients of the Barry Goldwater scholarship.

Runyu Cai and Kyla Semmendinger made school history by being the first set of students to win the scholarship in the same year.

Cai, a sophomore engineering student, said that after learning he received the scholarship, three thoughts stood out in his mind.

“First of all, my hard work and perseverance over years paid off. Secondly, I was so grateful that there are so many people standing behind me and giving me their best support,” he said in an email. “Thirdly, I felt a great honor to be able to represent my dear Mercer University at such a high level of recognition!”

One of the people standing behind Cai during his research was his mentor, electrical engineering professor Makhin Thitsa.

“With the guidance of Dr. Thitsa, I have successfully conducted research on chirp-free direct modulation of 550nm and 808nm emissions in Er3+ -doped fluoroindate glass by nonlinear feedback control,” he said. “My research proposal for Goldwater scholarship was on the topic of eliminating crosstalk in semiconductor optical amplifier by non-interacting state feedback control.”

The 550 nm wavelength is important for underwater communication.

Cai said he has presented his research at two international conferences and will be published in Optical Materials. Cai and Thitsa are also working with the Toyota Technological Institute to physically implement the findings of his research, along with preparing a paper for it.

The first time Cai heard about the Goldwater scholarship was in a session held by the Mercer’s director of fellowships and scholarships, David Davis.

“[Davis] depicted the value of the scholarship using the quote ‘the most prestigious scholarship in science, mathematics and engineering in U.S.,’ and I never thought I would ever get it,” Cai said.

Semmendinger, the second student in the history-making pair at Mercer, said she never considered herself for the scholarship.

However, with the guidance of the engineering school’s senior associate dean, Laura Lackey, Semmendinger applied, went through the rigorous nomination process and was selected as a recipient.

Semmendinger said she is excited to be a recipient because it shows people what she has been doing and what she can do.

Her research comes from working with environmental engineering professor Michael MacCarthy on environmentally friendly practices in Middle Georgia.

One of those practices is the use of ground source heat pumps.

“My specific project is looking at how to incorporate manual drilling, which is a traditional drilling technique used in developing countries, to decrease high installation costs and then incorporate that into the ground source heat pumps,” she said.

As a junior, Semmendinger said all the research she has done on the heat pumps and drilling will be used for her senior design project next year.

“Now that I’ve tested the feasibility of this project and a lot of the ground research, now it’s more of a design project,” she said. “Moving from here, we’ll start sizing the system and then actually manually drilling on the engineering field where we’re allowed to drill on campus.”

Semmendinger said her goal for the project is to eventually install a pump into a home in the area.

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While Cai and Semmendinger received the scholarship, junior Jessica Resnick was awarded honorable mention for the second year in a row.

When she wasn’t awarded the scholarship last year, Resnick decided to try again.

“This is actually the first year that you were allowed to reapply for it if you won honorable mention,” she said. “Usually you were recognized [and] that was it, you’re [done]. This year they let [people] re apply.”

Resnick, a life sciences student, based her research off of something she said she is passionate about, genetics.

“I’m studying genetic regulation of muscle atrophy in rats, specifically by long, noncoating RNAs,” she said. “We’re trying to figure out what changes when your muscle atrophy, how that’s regulated.”

While they are studying rats, Resnick said that the research was a preliminary NASA study but did not receive funding.

“It could be adapted to helping space-wide missions in space because muscles atrophy in space. It could also be adapted for muscular degenerative disorders, but that’s way in the future,” she said. “Right now we’re just trying to find out at a basic level what’s going on.”

Although she didn’t receive the Goldwater scholarship, Resnick was named an Amgen Scholar and will spend her summer at the program in St. Louis at Washington University.

Resnick said the program was one of the 10 or more programs that she applied to for this summer.

During the over three-month program, Resnick will be working with other students and professors from top schools around the country, including Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“I get to help a leading professor with their research which is really exciting, and Washington University is one of the places I want to go to [for] grad school,” she said.

Resnick will be one of the 20 scholars at Washington University. According to their website, each of the 10 program locations host 20 students, making it a 200-student participation overall.

The Amgen Scholars Program, which has programs in the United States, Europe and Japan, “seeks to increase learning and networking opportunities for students committed to pursuing science or engineering careers and to spark the interest and broaden the perspective of students considering scientific careers,” according to their website.

Cai and Semmendinger received two out of the 240 scholarships given by the Goldwater Scholarship Foundation out of 2,000 institutions across the country, according to the 2017 Goldwater Scholarship recipients press release.   

“The Scholarship Program honoring Senator Barry Goldwater was designed to foster and encourage outstanding students to pursue careers in the fields of mathematics, the natural sciences, and engineering,” according to a Mercer press release.


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