Undergraduate Research

Three Tech Students Win Goldwater Scholarships

Academically, Michigan Tech is batting 1.000. All three of the University's nominees for prestigious Goldwater Scholarships this year were winners of the 2009 awards.

John Mark Gubatan, Hansen Nordsiek, and Eli Vlaisavljevich were named Goldwater Scholars by the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation. Gubatan is a biochemistry and molecular biology major with a double minor in French and Spanish. Nordsiek is majoring in physics, and Vlaisavljevich is a biomedical engineering major, as well as a defenseman on Michigan Tech's hockey team.

Although Michigan Tech has produced a number of Goldwater Scholars in previous years, this is the first time the University has had more than one winner in any given year.

Goldwater Scholarships—established by Congress to honor the late Senator Barry M. Goldwater—are based on academic merit, research experience, and an intent to pursue a career in science, engineering, or mathematics. Colleges and universities nominate students for the scholarships, which cover up to $7,500 in tuition and fees.

"The Goldwater is one of the more prestigious scholarships you can win as an undergraduate in science, engineering, or math," said Will Cantrell, associate professor of physics and Michigan Tech faculty representative for the program. "It is highly competitive."

The Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation received 1,079 nominations this year and awarded 278 scholarships. Other winners in Michigan include four students at the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor, four at Hope College, and three at Michigan State University.

"Goldwater Scholars usually go on to do very well at getting National Science Foundation, NASA, Department of Energy, and other graduate fellowships," Cantrell noted.

Before Refrigerators, There Were . . . Oak Leaves?

Holistic healers have long touted the benefits of oak leaves as treatment for gastrointestinal ailments, insect bites, and more. Michigan Tech student Nari Kang may have discovered a groundbreaking new use: food preservation.

"This idea has been in my head since high school, after seeing a news story about the chemicals in food," Kang says. "I wondered—what did people do before there were refrigerators?"

Kang, a second-year bioinformatics major from South Korea, was inspired to pursue her research after hearing Korean folk culture stories about the preservative qualities of oak leaves.

"Theoretically, there are several reasons why oak leaves would make good food preservatives," Kang explains. "They contain a chemical component that acts as a natural preservative, they have a drying agent that tends to remove moisture, and they're large, which means they can be easily wrapped around food."

To find out if the leaves might have anti-fungal qualities, Kang gathered leaves from local oak trees and pulverized them. Then she extracted chemicals called terpene trilactones—molecules associated with positive health effects, including increased blood circulation to the brain—and dissolved them in methanol.

Kang then applied the extracts to a fungus often found in many of our kitchens—Penicillium chrysogenum, or common bread mold.

After a week in incubation, the results were incredible. Test plates treated with the leaf extract showed drastically reduced rates of mold growth.

"I was very excited," Kang says. "This really interests me."

Her research interests others as well. After presenting at last spring's Undergraduate Expo, Kang nabbed first-place honors in the Undergraduate Research division and created a buzz about potential applications in major food industries.

For now, she plans to focus on additional research, including testing to make sure the extract isn't harmful. Kang considers herself lucky to be at Michigan Tech, where she can tackle the research she's most interested in.

"When I started, I was only a first-year student," she says. "My professor, Dr. Ramakrishna Wusirika, helped me with my idea, showed me how to work in the lab. It's very exciting to be able to work on projects like this as an undergraduate."

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.