Of the three University of Wisconsin-Madison students to win this year’s prestigious Barry Goldwater Scholarship, two are from Verona.
Luquant Singh and Claire Evensen, 2016 Verona Area High School graduates, were named Goldwater Scholars this spring for their work studying plasma physics and genetic transcription, respectively. This distinction provides up to $7,500 per year for undergraduate expenses and is available to college sophomores and juniors who intend to pursue research careers in the natural sciences, mathematics and engineering, according to a UW-Madison news release.
Singh and Evensen, who were among the 496 students selected from 1,223 nominees around the United States, both became interested in their fields of study while attending Verona schools.
Singh took his first physics class in high school under the tutelage of VAHS science teacher Annelies Howell.
“I just had such a great time and I felt like that was when I started to realize that physics was what I wanted to do rather than math or any other discipline,” Singh said.
In his senior year of high school, Singh served as a teaching assistant in Howell’s classes, where he helped set up physics experiments.
“Luquant is a gifted student and it was a joy to work with him,” Howell wrote in an email to the Press. “In my class, he was both curious and insightful.”
For Evensen, VASD math teacher Jim Guy taught her throughout both middle and high school.
“I think he was the most influential one in leading to my choice to pursue math,” Evensen said. “He obviously really loved what he was teaching and I thought he gave us a great sense of why this was important.”
Evensen took every Advanced Placement math class available during high school, including three semesters of calculus, which helped her enter college with credits already to her name.
“At the very beginning I could tell she had a tremendous gift for mathematics,” Guy wrote in an email to the Press. “Claire had such a wonderful, positive, friendly personality to go along with her insatiable love for learning.”
Singh got a jump on his research at UW-Madison in the summer after graduating from high school, though he didn’t begin his classes until the fall.
Attending school on a full-tuition music scholarship for clarinet performance, Singh chose a degree program in applied math, engineering and physics.
He has focused his studies on understanding the physics of plasma, a state of matter that is created from heating gas to high temperatures.
“I like plasma physics because not only does it tie together everything that I’ve learned in my undergrad degree, it also is aimed at producing an energy source alternative to fossil fuels and other harmful emitting energy sources,” Singh said.
Plasma is essential for fusion, a nuclear reaction that releases more energy than the fission that takes place in contemporary nuclear reactors.
As a computationalist, Singh uses math and computer science to bridge plasma theory and experimental results. He is most interested in stellarators, devices that produce controlled fusion reactions, and has conducted research on the Helically Symmetric eXperiment (HSX) stellarator since his freshman year of college.
“We’ve tried to figure out what’s going on inside of it,” he said. “Plasmas are very unknown to us.”
Singh works on the HSX with UW-Madison engineering professor David T. Anderson, who he credited in helping him receive the Goldwater Scholarship.
“This device is one of a kind and he designed it and did everything from start to finish,” Singh said. “It’s pretty incredible.”
A glimpse inside a cell
Evensen is pursuing a double major in biochemistry and mathematics, with honors in biochemistry and the liberal arts, and her research is concerned with the process of transcription.
Taking place in a cell’s nucleus, transcription is the synthesis of RNA from DNA. Evensen studies the beginning phase of transcription, which is known as initiation.
“In transcription, you are using a DNA template to make a strand of RNA and that RNA is then later taken to ribosomes and transcribed into proteins,” she said.
Transcription is the first of two steps in the synthesis of proteins, which are molecules that play essential functions in the body — these include enzymes and antibodies.
“Understanding how transcription is regulated is very important because it’s applicable to literally every living thing on Earth,” she said. “Every cell does transcription.”
In her research, Evensen utilizes math to analyze biological scenarios.
“When you really get down to the details, math is what explains what’s going on in any biological context and I just really like being able to get at the root of the issue,” She said. “You can use math to simulate situations that wouldn’t occur in nature and then use that to give you information about situations that do.”
Evensen has investigated transcription initiation for about two and a half years in the laboratory of UW-Madison biochemistry professor Thomas Record.
“Tom is fantastic to work with,” Evensen said. “He really focuses on undergraduate research and you just feel like you’re part of the team.”
This summer, Singh and Evensen’s endeavors will take them out of state to a pair of esteemed research institutions.
Singh will head to Princeton University in New Jersey to undertake research at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. From June through August, he will collaborate with Stuart Hudson, a staff research physicist in the PPPL Theory Department.
“It’s basically the most renowned plasma physics lab in the entire world,” Singh said. “They invented (stellarators) in the ‘50s, so it’s going to be cool to be there and see the history and meet people that were on the original experiments.”
With a goal of developing a fusion energy source, the facility is one of 17 national laboratories under the guidance of the U.S. Department of Energy.
Evensen will travel to the University of Oxford in England to work at the Wolfson Centre for Mathematical Biology. From July through August, she will study the peripheral nervous system with Oxford professor Philip Maini.
“The lab I’ll be joining studies neural crest development, which is the migration of nervous tissue in an embryo to populate the whole body,” Evensen said. “They specifically study how the nerves migrate into the intestine.”
The study abroad opportunity is part of the UW-Madison Department of Biochemistry’s Summer Cambridge Oxford Research Experience (SCORE) program.
Both Singh and Evensen are on track to graduate with Bachelor of Science degrees next spring, though this will only be the start of their academic journeys. Singh aims to pursue a Ph.D. in plasma physics and is also looking to earn a Master of Music degree in clarinet performance, while Evensen intends to pursue a Ph.D. in mathematical biology and dreams of becoming a professor.