Two UCR Undergraduates Named Goldwater Scholars

Renata Koontz and Nicholas Pham mark the second set of UCR recipients to receive the prestigious award in the same year

Renata Koontz and Nicholas Pham are this year’s UCR Goldwater Scholars.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Two University of California, Riverside undergraduates — one studying physics and the other engineering and applied physics — have each won a Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, one of the most prestigious and competitive undergraduate STEM awards.

UCR, which is one of the leading UC campuses for Goldwater Scholars, has had a total of eight undergraduate winners since 2013, many of whom have gone on to win other distinguished awards from entities such as the National Science Foundation, Gates Cambridge Trust, The Fulbright Program, as well as admission to top graduate schools.

This year’s winners are no exception.

Renata Koontz, a student working toward a doctorate in computational physics, has persisted in her field despite a number of challenges. In addition to a 12-month illness that forced her to defer her sophomore year, the Pasadena native also endured a steep learning curve in math, a pitfall she thought would force her to forego a research career. “It’s very easy to get lost in the math … I think people understand the concepts (of physics), but when it comes to the math, that’s when people struggle.”

But Koontz refused to struggle for long. Her willingness to learn made her a magnet for mentors, who, starting in high school, suggested a number of readings for her to take up. Koontz put in the work, and now finds herself in her fourth year of a five-year track in the UCR Physics Department, where she’s been working with Assistant Professor Hai-Bo Yu, a theoretical physicist, since her freshman year.

“I was doing analyses of dark matter simulations, and I felt like it was the coolest thing ever. You can just model the universe with a couple of parameters — it was really fun. I also felt challenged, which I like a lot. Hai-Bo Yu has been super encouraging and instrumental in my career,” Koontz said.

Her story is a familiar one at UCR, a campus with a historically rich culture for these types of mentorships.

“The key to our success is the strong encouragement and support that we give to all of our students to engage in undergraduate research with our faculty,” said Owen Long, professor and chair of the undergraduate advising committee for the Department of Physics & Astronomy. “More than half of our students take advantage of this before graduating. We all feel it’s our duty and privilege to provide student access to research. It’s a key component of fulfilling our mission to educate, train, and mentor new scientists.”

Koontz, who previously won the Benjamin C. Shen Memorial Outstanding Third Year Award for physics, also participated in the 2017 “Fellowships and Internships in Extremely Large Data Sets” program, also known as FIELDS, which sent her to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a paid internship. There she worked under Peter Eisenhardt, a principal scientist, helping to find and catalog distant galaxy clusters.

Post-graduation goals for the young researcher include a Fulbright or Churchhill scholarship, which her faculty and staff mentors have urged her to apply for. Koontz said she likes the idea of researching abroad, which both scholarships would allow, but she’s leaning towards the Fulbright, specifically a program in Hong Kong. “There’s a lot of cool sciences in Hong Kong, and I think I want to go to a culture I know nothing about.”

The other Goldwater Scholarship recipient is Nicholas Pham, a third-year dual major in chemical engineering and physics. Hailing from Anaheim Hills, Pham dates his love for science to his early years, when he resolved to invent things in the manner he saw in comic books and superhero movies. Now the Chancellor’s Research Fellow works under George Becker, assistant professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy.

“We do research on astrophysics and quasars — really bright objects in the sky,” Pham said. “We’re trying to create a map up there. You have a map of L.A., but no one has a map of space.”

His team is trying to change that. The mapping is well underway thanks to data from telescopes, a process that has persuaded him to pursue a career studying space.

Pham’s previously studied catalysis under Phillip Christopher, a former UCR professor who co-authored a paper with Pham before his departure.

Pham, a three-year recipient of the Dean’s Academic Distinction Award, is also president-elect of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers at UCR, an engineering club offering resources for chemical engineers and material science majors. “Inventing is my game,” Pham said, adding that he looks forward to mentoring other young chemical engineers.

Pham also has a life on the stage. The singer and dancer recently concluded a run of “Jesus Christ Superstar” with Performance Riverside, where he played the role of Apostle Andrew. The best part? He got paid to do it.

“It’s just a whole new experience,” Pham said. “Wherever the fun is, I just kind of flock to it.”

Pham also holds an interest in going abroad after graduation. He is applying for a Marshall Scholarship, which finances young Americans of high ability to study for a graduate degree in the United Kingdom. Pham said he hopes to study at the University of Cambridge.

“Studying abroad in engineering and physics is every scientists’ dream,” he said.

Both Koontz and Pham are supported by the Undergraduate Education and join other exceptional undergraduates at UCR who have won Goldwater Scholarships. For a full list of past recipients, click here.

“It is very exciting to have UCR students consistently recognized by the Goldwater Scholarship, demonstrating the strong undergraduate research and mentorship that takes place on campus,” said Gladis Herrera-Berkowitz, director of student engagement in undergraduate education. “Every student who participates in the endorsement process gains knowledge and experience to continue applying for other opportunities.”

Thomas Dickson, assistant vice provost of undergraduate education for student engagement, highlighted additional benefits to the program, which recruits Goldwater candidates in the fall and offers support throughout the application process.

“The students learn how to tell their story and inspire more UCR students to apply for national and prestigious scholarships and awards,” he said.

The Barry Goldwater Scholarship Program was created to encourage outstanding students to pursue careers in mathematics, the natural sciences, or engineering and to foster excellence in those fields. More information about the scholarships can be found here. Of the 1,280 national applicants this year from 455 institutions, 211 were awarded the scholarship (eight are in the UC system). UCR, UC Davis and UC Santa Barbara each received two scholarships; UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz each received one scholarship.

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