A Northern Arizona University junior is one of three students from Arizona selected as a Goldwater Scholar in 2017.

After years of doing undergraduate research and months of editing and revising his application, Etude O’Neel-Judy, a junior Honors student majoring in mathematics and physics, knew his work had paid off when he received the email telling him he was selected for the prestigious national award.

“I was in a classroom at the time, so I quietly walked into the hall, where I ran around flapping my arms and cheering silently; I didn’t want to disturb anyone,” O’Neel-Judy said. “It just so happened that Goldwater made the announcement on my birthday, so my 22nd was marked by some of the most exciting news of my college career.”

For undergraduate students who want to pursue STEM research, selection as a Goldwater Scholar is a highly sought after recognition from the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation based on academic merit in research-focused STEM programs. The award pays for tuition, fees, books and living expenses up to $7,500 a year. This year 240 students were selected as scholars, while another 300 were given Honorable Mention.

NAU junior Robert Voinescu, also majoring in mathematics and physics, was one of the students recognized with a Goldwater Honorable Mention. In his application, he credited his physics background with teaching him about experimental techniques and his math background with teaching him about the methods of theoretical research, which he plans to combine in his chosen career field of condensed matter theory.

“The Goldwater Scholarship is highly competitive and provides the opportunity for undergraduate researchers to have their efforts rewarded and recognized by the research community as a whole,” he said. “The process began long before I put pen to paper. My mentors, Dana Ernst and John Gibbs, have played an integral role in making me the researcher I am today and narrowing down my field of interest.”

Goldwater Honorable Mention Robert Voinescu

Robert Voinescu

Universities can only nominate a few students each year, so nominees who get to the Goldwater Foundation have already gone through a rigorous application process. NAU is no different; O’Neel-Judy and Voinescu worked with Melissa Riggs, coordinator of National and International Scholarships and Fellowships, as well as his faculty and research mentors at NAU to craft an application that showcased his research and academic interests.

President Rita Cheng lauded the accomplishments of O’Neel-Judy and Voinescu, as well as those faculty members who have contributed to the students’ success.

“Our students are so talented and driven, and the experiences our NAU faculty and staff provide prepare them for great things, both during college and in their personal and professional lives,” she said. “I am so proud of Etude and Robert for this recognition, and we are all indebted to their faculty mentors.”

O’Neel-Judy has been involved with research since he arrived on campus; he’s also worked two jobs for the last three years to pay for school, which ate up research time. The financial portion of the award will take away some of that pressure, allowing him to focus more on research his final year at NAU.

After graduating, he wants earn a doctorate in mathematical physics or find a research position in industry or at an institution, allowing him to focus on novel approaches to the theoretical development of quantum gravity through new models of quantum spacetime.

“I love mathematics—but only when it makes sense to me,” he said. “What I mean by this is I understand math best when I can relate it back to the world in which I live. Because of this desire to relate math to the real world, I really enjoy mathematical physics. It is essentially the development of math as it pertains to problems in the real world and encompasses many wonderful topics.”

Voinescu is looking at study-abroad programs and additional research opportunities to broaden his knowledge base, including doing research at the University of Michigan this summer. He plans to earn a doctorate in theoretical physics, after which he wants to conduct research in the area of ultra-cold physics, write textbooks and teach at the university level.

Since 2013, NAU has had four Goldwater Scholars and three Honorable Mentions.