Harvey Mudd Chemistry Student Named Goldwater Scholar

Leah Stevenson ’19, an aspiring chemist at Harvey Mudd College, is the recipient of a Barry Goldwater Scholarship, the most prestigious national award for undergraduate STEM researchers. The award for undergraduate U.S. sophomores and juniors covers the cost of tuition, fees, books, and room and board up to $7,500 per year. This year, 211 scholarships were awarded and 281 nominees were named as Honorable Mentions, including Havi Ellers ’20.

Leah Stevenson '19, Goldwater ScholarStevenson is both an active researcher and leader at Harvey Mudd. She is a chemistry tutor for Academic Excellence, a musician in The Claremont Colleges Orchestra and is part of The Claremont Colleges Library Board of Student Stakeholders. She’s also a recipient of the Department of Chemistry’s William G. Sly Prize, which recognizes her curiosity, intellectual integrity and enthusiasm for chemistry.

This year, Stevenson received the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship granting her the opportunity to explore the development of novel alternative fuels with Thomas J. Bruno, group leader of the Experimental Properties of Fluids Group of the Applied Chemicals and Materials Division.  She will study the phase properties of biofuels via NIST’s composition-explicit distillation curve, a technique that provides an energy content channel in addition to the volatility of a fuel. Stevenson will have the opportunity to become an expert at gas chromatography, mass spectrometry and many other analytical techniques.

During summer 2017, Stevenson worked with Dr. John Cort at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to improve the characterization of complex bio-oil mixtures using heteronuclear NMR spectroscopy.

“The conversion of biomass into liquid fuels is of interest as a source of sustainable energy, and it is important to understand the chemical composition of these mixtures and the effects of their composition on properties relevant to their use as fuels,” says Stevenson. “NMR spectroscopy is a powerful tool for elucidation of the components of bio-oils and their chemical structures. I collected, processed and analyzed HSQC NMR spectra of bio-oils as well as possible components. I developed and implemented an algorithm in Python to match the spectra of the components with features in the bio-oil spectra so that individual molecular components could be distinguished.”

Her research at Harvey Mudd with professors Gerald Van Hecke ’61 and Kerry Karukstis involves studying the self-assembly process of chromonic molecules, a class of soluble aromatic compounds that stack via intermolecular interactions to form column-like aggregates in solution. Stevenson uses static light scattering in conjunction with refractive index measurements and fluorescence spectroscopy to learn more about this stacking process in chromonic systems.

Stevenson says her goal is to obtain a PhD in physical chemistry and pursue a career in basic chemical research.

Havi Ellers '20, Goldwater Scholarship Honorable MentionHavi Ellers ’20

Ellers, a sophomore majoring in mathematics, is a Goldwater Scholarship Honorable Mention recipient. The former competitive gymnast started a gymnastics club at Harvey Mudd, plays piano and is fluent in casual Japanese. This past summer at the WADE Into Research program, a research experience for undergraduates at Wake Forest University, Ellers worked with three other undergraduates and faculty adviser Katherine Thompson (now at Carnegie Mellon University) to study mathematical objects called quadratic forms. Ellers plans to attend graduate school in pure mathematics, and go on to become a math professor and researcher at a university.

The 2018 Goldwater Scholars were selected based on academic merit from a field of 1,280 natural sciences, mathematics and engineering students nominated by the campus representatives from among 2,000 colleges and universities nationwide. Of those reporting, 110 of the Scholars are men, 99 are women, and virtually all intend to obtain a PhD as their highest degree objective. Twenty-nine Scholars are mathematics and computer science majors, 142 are majoring in the natural sciences, and 40 are majoring in engineering.

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. All Harvey Mudd sophomores and juniors are eligible to compete for the Goldwater Scholarship, which is awarded on the basis of academic merit. The HMC Department Chairs Committee nominates up to four students annually.