Three UA Students Among Goldwater Scholars
Travis Sawyer, Jeannie Wilkening and Alison Comrie are part of a group of 260 students across the nation to receive scholarships in STEM fields.

University Relations - Communications
May 19, 2015


Three UA students have been named Goldwater Scholars.
Three UA students have been named Goldwater Scholars. (Photo: FJ Gaylor)

Three University of Arizona students who are training to become a machine learning expert, an environmental engineer and a neurobiology researcher have been named recipients of the nationally competitive Goldwater Scholarship.

The Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation announced that it is funding 260 sophomores and juniors attending institutions across the U.S. for the 2015–2016 academic year. The scholarship, awarded at up to $7,500 per year, funds students' tuition, fees, books and housing. 

The scholarship recipients at the UA are: Travis Sawyer, an optical sciences and engineering major; Jeannie Wilkening, a chemical engineering major; and Alison Comrie, a neuroscience and cognitive science major.

Laura Vonessen, a double major in computer science and mathematics, received an honorable mention. 

The Goldwater Scholarship is awarded to students based on academic merit, specifically in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, fields. The UA had more scholars awarded this year than institutions such as Harvard University, Texas A&M University and the University of California's Davis and Berkeley campuses.

"Goldwater Scholars have very impressive academic qualifications that have garnered the attention of prestigious postgraduate fellowship programs," the foundation noted in its award announcement. Goldwater Scholars have won other competitive awards, including the Rhodes Scholarship, the Churchill Scholarships and the National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship.

Alison Comrie

Comrie's research interests are in the brain's learning capabilities and memory systems, and in the changes that occur over the course of normal aging. 

"Great progress has been made recently, but the brain still remains a largely uncharted territory," she said. "There's a lot left to learn, and I love the excitement of the unknown. Neuroscience gives me room for creative exploration."

Working on brain-related research with Carol Barnes, a Regents' Professor in the Departments of Psychology, Neurology and Neuroscience, Comrie has been engaged in comparative studies of changes that occur in brains that are healthy.

"I was attracted to the way the lab doesn't just address anatomy or physiology alone, but combines these perspectives with how they give rise to behavior which, at the end of the day, is really what people care about," said Comrie, who is currently abroad conducting related research at the University of Oxford through the UA's Biomedical Research Abroad: Vistas Open, or BRAVO!, program.

"Dr. Barnes has been absolutely prolific in this field, and has done a great deal of mentoring throughout her career, making her lab not just a good environment for research, but also a community that willingly fosters the development of high school students and undergraduates," she said.

Comrie, who is also an Honors College student, took initial interest in the Goldwater Scholarship because of its focus on research.

"This kind of recognition motivates me to continue pursuing my passions," Comrie said. "I find my work gratifying, so of course I am thrilled to be supported in doing what I love. That support isn’t just from the Goldwater Foundation, but from my enthusiastic mentors and teachers and the Office of Nationally Competitive Scholarships along the way, too."

Long term, Comrie intends to continue informing on ways the brain changes through adulthood. This eventually could help develop new technologies and therapies that aid in improved cognition and the reduction of dysfunction associated with aging and disease.

For her continued personal and professional development, Comrie credits Barnes and Leslie Tolbert, a Regents' Professor of Neuroscience. She plans to eventually pursue a doctorate in neuroscience and continue to contribute to her scholarly community and public understandings of brain research through science communications.

"Dr. Barnes and Dr. Tolbert have been particularly influential in my life as strong women in neuroscience," Comrie said. "They have encouraged my curiosity and critical thinking in the lab and classroom."

Travis Sawyer

Sawyer's plans are to eventually teach at the university level while also conducting research in machine learning and image processing, continuing work in software development as well. 

The Goldwater Scholarship will enable Sawyer to travel to Holland, where he will continue his current research with Robert Erdmann, a former UA associate professor of materials science and engineering, applying image processing research to historic artistic artifacts.

Ultimately, Sawyer is working to design improved visual recognition software to eventually allow scientists to more effectively image in different wavelength — such as infrared and X-ray — to determine what lies beneath the initial surface of art materials. He is working also to extend these methods to other fields, such as medical imaging.

"We want to be able to recognize without having to inspect the object ourselves," said Sawyer, an Honors College student.

Sawyer has served as a member of a research team led by Erdmann, now a research scientist at the University of Amsterdam. Last year, the team's analysis assisted in authenticating "Sunset at Montmajour," a long-lost painting by Vincent van Gogh, which gained international attention.

More recently, Sawyer has been working with Erdmann and the Bosch Research and Conservation Project, using technology and imaging methods that uncover the history of famed works of art — namely works by Renaissance painter Hieronymus Bosch.

"I have developed a love for art and the beauty of producing something that captures feelings of a person or a situation. It's been refreshing," Sawyer said.

Sawyer, also a 2014 Astronaut Scholar,  said that the pursuit of the Goldwater Scholarship has been valuable already.

"I've come to realize that, when applying to one of these nationally competitive scholarships, you get experience in writing technical and personal responses," he said. 

"It's very important to be able to articulate your ideas and your research, and you need to be able to do that with a broad audience. Being able to communicate is almost as important as doing your research. The Goldwater application was a very involved process, and I learned a lot and improved myself going through it."

Jeannie Wilkening

Wilkening, in her training and research associated with environmental engineering, is primarily concerned with the ways humans impact biogeochemical cycles — which represent how water and various other compounds and chemical elements move through the atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere. 

While at the UA, Wilkening has been working with researchers from the University of Michigan's Biological Station on an investigation of the impact of temperature on the photosynthetic activity of different tree species in the institution's state. Essentially, she is working to improve scientific knowledge about how the uptake of carbon dioxide by forests could change under future climate change, while also working to improve existing climate change models.

She also has been collaborating with UA researchers Jim Field and Reyes Sierra in the Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering. That project involves an investigation of ways to use microbes to recover tellurium, a mildly toxic but valuable chemical element, from industrial waste streams. She also worked with them previously on a project investigating the toxicity potential of thin-film solar cells in municipal waste landfills.

This semester, Wilkening, a Flinn Scholar, was an exchange student at Uppsala University in Sweden. There, she took sustainable development coursework, learning about environmental issues in an interdisciplinary setting.

"It has been a really great experience," Wilkening said. "Even though I haven't been doing research this semester, my experiences abroad will help me as a researcher, since I've been able to gain a lot of experience working with people from all over the world on a variety of problems, which is really at the heart of a lot of scientific research."

Wilkening, an Honors College student, is planning to pursue graduate studies in environmental engineering with a focus on biogeochemistry after graduating from the UA next year.

"With so many different environmental issues threatening society, I hope that my work can contribute to help making a more sustainable future for everyone," she said, adding that support provided by the UA and now the Goldwater Scholarship will help her continue her research in environmental engineering.

"I'm so grateful for all the support I've had during my time at the UA. I've had so many amazing professors and mentors, and those experiences are really what made this award possible," she said.

"Receiving the Goldwater Scholarship really acts as encouragement and validation for me to continue the research work I’ve been doing. I have always loved research, but this helped to make it clearer that research is something I can really pursue as a career. Considering how competitive and talented the applicant pool is, I'm incredibly honored to have been awarded the scholarship."

Extra info

UA students interested in applying for the Goldwater Scholarship for the 2016-2017 academic year should contact the Office of Nationally Competitive Scholarships at 520-621-6901 or


Resources for the media

Karna Walter

UA Honors College