Three students from Oregon State University’s College of Engineering have been named Goldwater Scholars for the 2021-2022 academic year.
Juniors Tegan Thurston and Cindy Wong, and sophomore Alyssa Pratt, are among 410 students — selected from a nationwide pool of more than 5,000 candidates — to receive the prestigious award. Emily Gemmill, a junior from the College of Science, also earned the scholarship.
Goldwater scholarships are awarded by the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation to sophomores and juniors in mathematics, natural sciences, or engineering who exhibit intellectual intensity and exceptional promise of becoming research leaders in their chosen fields. Each student will each receive up to $7,500 annually for tuition, fees, books, and housing expenses.
“These students stand out because of their impressive personal qualities and their proactive approach to forming research collaborations and nurturing mentor relationships,” said LeAnn Joy Adam, coordinator of the National and Global Scholarships Advising office at Oregon State. “Mentors have high expectations of them, and they consistently deliver outstanding work and demonstrate leadership qualities, such as mentoring new students.”
Alyssa Pratt, Analyzing RNA
As a high school student in Portland, Pratt figured it would be a good idea to get a head start on college and meet with faculty at the school she planned to attend. She already had set her sights on studying computational biology, so she reached out to David Hendrix, associate professor of computer science at Oregon State, to ask some questions. The next time, she asked if he had any open positions in his lab. He did.
For more than a year now, Pratt, who is double majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology and in computer science, has been a valued research assistant in the lab. Her work has focused on characterizing secondary RNA structures called hairpins — a name that describes their distinctive “U” shape.
In one project, Pratt looked at an unusual type of hairpin that had been identified previously by another researcher in the lab. Curiously, when the hairpin’s nucleotide sequence was subjected to dinucleotide shuffling — a common technique in bioinformatics for evaluating genetic sequences — its structure remained unchanged. The trait earned it the name “unbreakable hairpin,” Pratt explained. She detailed all of the potential causes for its resistance to shuffling and highlighted the causes that appeared to be most important.
In addition, she and Hendrix created an algorithm to predict the number of unique sequences that can be generated by shuffling.
“The key finding from unbreakable hairpins is that randomization from dinucleotide shuffling isn’t always as random as you think it is,” Pratt said. “Researchers expect sequences to be scrambled and not resemble the original sequence. But there might be a one in 10 chance or a one in 1,000 chance of getting a particular sequence, and it’s very useful to be able to quantify that and to determine whether they’re going to get many new shuffled sequences or not.” The work has major implications for dinucleotide shuffling as a method of generating random controls for bioinformatics analyses.
“Alyssa shows a combination of motivation, curiosity, creativity, and intellect that will carry her forward toward success in computational biology,” Hendrix said.
Tegan Thurston, Ergonomics; Prosthetic Sensory Feedback
Thurston’s first big research project as an Oregon State student took her into operating rooms at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Working with Xinhui Zhu, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the time (now an ergonomics consultant), she assessed the musculoskeletal strain experienced by surgeons while they work.
“Because they stand in awkward, static positions for hours every day, surgeons often suffer problems like joint and back pain,” said Thurston, a bioengineering major and Honors College student from Salem.
During the study, electrodes were positioned on the shoulders, back of the neck, lower back, triceps, and biceps of a group of surgeons. Tegan then observed and recorded the bioelectric impulses generated by the muscles while the surgeons performed laparoscopic gastrointestinal procedures. Changes in the signals indicated that muscles weakened markedly as surgery progressed.
“We concluded that there’s stress going on in their muscles even though they’re standing still,” Thurston said. “As the doctors get older, those stresses can build up and cause a lot damage to the body.”
The findings provide information that might help surgeons ease fatigue and discomfort. For instance, they could focus on relaxing and stretching the affected muscle groups between procedures. The results may also offer insight into how long it takes before muscle fatigue diminishes a surgeon’s efficacy over the course of day — a factor that could have an impact on patient safety and surgical outcomes.
“The results don’t point to a single solution, but they provide data from which a solution can be found,” Thurston said.
And in Oregon State’s Information Processing Group, Thurston is developing a haptic feedback system that returns sensory information for myoelectric hand prostheses — a valuable feature that many prosthetic systems lack. She’s also been immersed in genetic research in the lab of Michael Blouin, a professor of integrative biology, which she began while still in high school.
“Tegan has been a wonderful member of our lab,” said Stephanie Bollman, a senior faculty research assistant who has worked closely with Thurston in Blouin’s lab. “She’s showed maturity beyond her years and great ability to do both molecular biology and statistical analysis. She continues to be a joy to work with.”
Cindy Wong, Storing Clean Energy with Seawater Electrolysis
Wong, a chemical engineering major from Albany, Oregon, dove into seawater electrolysis research during her Pete and Rosalie Johnson Undergraduate Internship. The positions are available to outstanding students in the school of Chemical, Biological, and Environmental Engineering who have completed their first year of study.
In electrolysis of water, an electrical current splits water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen, which is a clean-burning renewable fuel. But using seawater poses a major challenge.
“Seawater is more abundant and cheaper than fresh water, but it contains lots of chloride salts, which results in the evolution of [toxic] chlorine gas during electrolysis,” Wong said “That reaction interferes with the oxygen-evolving reaction.” Her primary research goal is identifying catalysts (used to coat the system’s electrodes) that result in high oxygen evolution and low chlorine evolution.
Her work has expanded to include seawater electrolysis for the production of synthetic gas — a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide — which can subsequently be converted into liquid hydrocarbons. “Much of my research is part of the larger challenge to find efficient methods for storing renewable energy,” Wong said.
“Cindy has been an outstanding member of our research team,” said Kelsey Stoerzinger, an assistant professor of chemical engineering and one of Wong’s mentors. “She’s inquisitive, eager to understand deeply and to learn more. She also excels in distilling information and presenting it in an accessible way.”
Wong’s first venture into research occurred before she enrolled at Oregon State, when she participated in the university’s Apprenticeships in Science and Engineering Internship. The eight-week, STEM-oriented program matches exceptional high-school students with scientists and engineers.
“That’s where I discovered that I really enjoy research,” she said. “I’m invigorated by the chance to solve big problems, especially those related to sustainable energy and climate change, and I love the freedom and the creativity I have when I’m looking for those solutions.”
Oregon State has enjoyed a strong history of success with the Goldwater Scholarship. Two of the university’s nominees were selected in 2020, and all four were chosen in 2019.
Schools are permitted to nominate up to five students each year. Forty-six Oregon State students have earned the scholarship since it was first conferred in 1989.
Students interested in applying for the Goldwater Scholarship, or faculty who would like to encourage students to apply, can contact the National and Global Scholarships Advising office. On Tuesday, May 25, at 5 p.m. PDT, the office is hosting a Zoom panel discussion featuring Oregon State Goldwater Scholars. You can find more information about the Goldwater Scholarship on the advising office and Goldwater Foundation websites.
Learn more about last year’s College of Engineering Goldwater Scholars here.