Two UCR students, third-year chemical engineering and physics double major Nicholas Pham and fourth-year physics major Renata Koontz, have received Goldwater scholarships, one of the country’s most prestigious undergraduate science accolades.

The Barry Goldwater Scholarship, named after the former presidential candidate and 30-year Republican senator of Arizona, was instituted by Congress in 1986. Awarded annually to around 300 students throughout the country, the scholarship is given to those pursuing research and careers in the natural sciences, engineering and math. Applicants must submit a research proposal identifying a current problem in their intended field to be considered.  

This is the second time UCR has produced two Goldwater scholars in one year, bringing the school’s total to eight since 2013. Although UCR has previously produced Goldwater scholars, winning still came as a bit of a surprise to both Pham and Koontz. “It didn’t hit me for a while,” said Koontz, “everyone was saying ‘congratulations’ and I just went through my day but then I got home and was like ‘cool, now I can be excited.’”

Both students are from Southern California, and both credit their high school experiences as catalysts for their interest in the sciences. Pham is originally from Anaheim and attended Troy High School in Fullerton, where he focused on the sciences and considered engineering. He would soon discover, however, that his interests were multidimensional. “I took a lot of math and computer science classes,” said Pham, “but I also liked chemistry a lot. I came in as a chemical engineering major, but since I had all of these math classes I added applied physics as a second major.”

Koontz hails from Pasadena and attended La Canada High School. Despite initially feeling shaky about her math ability, she powered through her physics classes and had a change of heart her junior year of high school. “I read ‘QED (The Strange Theory of Light and Matter)’ by Richard Feynman,” said Koontz, “and it got me really interested. I knew it’d be hard but like anything it just takes time.” After this, she continued studying physics and math and eventually chose physics as her major in college.

Once at UCR, both students navigated the many science classes offered and coincidentally discovered an interest in astrophysics. “We didn’t really know each other until the awards were announced,” said Pham. While neither student specifically majors in astrophysics, both of their research proposals involved studying large, far-away structures such as galaxies within our universe.

Both students’ proposals suggest utilizing various optical means to observe the universe at the furthest distances currently imaginable. In an interview, Koontz spoke about a problem that her Goldwater proposal focused on. “The models of our universe show that there should be more stuff out there than we actually observe,” she said, “but I think the models might have it wrong and there’s just a lot we can’t see or aren’t seeing right now.”

Koontz’s work involves gathering data from telescopes like Caltech’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, in hopes of seeing more galaxies and galaxy clusters. New data could not only help to produce more accurate computer models of our universe but also provide clues as to how these colossal structures evolve.

Disagreement between computer models and actual observations of the universe, such as galaxies spinning faster than the laws of physics suggest they should, could potentially be explained by dark matter. “Dark matter makes up about 85 percent of our universe,” said Dr. Hai-bo Yu, assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and faculty mentor to Koontz, “but we do not know what its properties are. We can assume the mass of the particles and create simulations, then compare those with our observations to test our theories of dark matter.”

While still a burgeoning area of physics, dark matter is a theoretical component of our universe which may account for the large amount of mass that remains unaccounted for by current models.

Pham essentially wants to take a photo of our universe at large, a task much more easily said than done. “We can really only observe what’s out there in one dimension,” he said, “it’s like looking at a city from one side, you can’t gauge the true dimensions of the buildings or the city as a whole.” To accomplish this, Pham proposed pasting these one dimensional profiles of galaxies and other distant phenomena (such as the gases which make up the interstellar medium) together to create a more accurate, multidimensional model of the large structures in our universe.

“We look at how galaxies are made, how they interact with and shape their environment and how these structures evolve,” said Dr. George Becker, a professor of physics and astronomy at UCR and faculty mentor to Pham.

Both Pham and Koontz plan on pursuing graduate education, likely in applied physics or possibly engineering. They intend to use their scholarships to fund their research, largely by accessing the advanced telescopic equipment they both require to observe the universe at great distances. “To study things that far away you need a camera that can detect narrow wavelengths, has a big lens, and a very wide field of view,” said Becker.