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Calvin Junior Wins Prestigious Goldwater
April 24, 2006

A Calvin College junior recently won a prestigious Goldwater Scholarship, an honor he credits to the research experience he’s accrued as an undergraduate.

Mark Vander Wal, a 20-year-old chemistry major, won $7,500 from the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Program to cover his tuition, books and living expenses for the upcoming academic year.

The program recognized 323 Goldwater Scholars for the 2006-2007 academic year out of 1,081 nominated mathematics, science, and engineering students from across the U.S.

“It’s an amazing honor,” Vander Wal says. “It’s pretty much the premiere award that an undergraduate science student can win.”

Kumar Sinniah, a Calvin professor of chemistry who for three years has collaborated with Vander Wal on various research projects, agrees.

Noting the large numbers of Goldwater recipients who have gone on to win Rhodes Scholarships and other major awards, Sinniah says: “The level of screening that is done at the undergraduate level to get this scholarship ensures that when they apply for something elsewhere, the likelihood of getting it is very high.”

The Goldwater Scholarship, named for former senator Barry M. Goldwater, was established by Congress in 1986 to bolster the ranks of highly qualified U.S. scientists, mathematicians, and engineers by awarding scholarships to college students who plan to pursue careers in these fields.

In addition to providing transcripts, test scores and recommendations, Vander Wal had to create a research proposal for his Goldwater application. “You’re supposed to talk about an area where you could do further research based on projects you have already done.”

Last year, Vander Wal and Sinniah teamed up on a project that measured pulling forces in DNA hybridization-demonstrating that the measure of force used to pull two strands of DNA apart varies based on how much force was used to put them together. Vander Wal built his Goldwater research proposal on this project, which he also presented at the 2006 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in February.

“They want to see that you can understand chemical problems and propose systematic methods to find solutions to the problems. Basically, they want to know if you understand the process of research and how it can be carried out in the laboratory setting,” he says of this part of the application process.

“Research is the business of scientists. That’s what we do,” continues Vander Wal who plans to continue chemistry research through graduate school and beyond. “That’s what all the people who won the Goldwater scholarship are going to do in their lives. They’re going to research scientific problems.”

Vander Wal gives the lion’s share of the credit for his student research career to his mentor.

"Without Professor Sinniah, my life at Calvin would not have gone as well as it has. I had chemistry with him the first semester, and he took me under his wing and brought me into his research group, and ever since then I’ve researched with him,” Vander Wal says. “It has been such a rewarding experience. Without that research experience and the publication we had, there’s no way that this scholarship would have been possible.”

Sinniah demurred. “It’s a big honor for Calvin too,” he says of the award. “I’m not the only one who has influenced him. It’s a good feeling overall, and I’m very glad for him. He deserves it. He’s a very smart chap and he doesn’t rest on it. It’s true of a lot of other smart students here too. They work hard, and that makes a big difference.”

Other 2006 Goldwater Scholars from the state of Michigan are attending Case Western Reserve, MSU, Michigan, Wayne State and the College of Wooster.

~written by media relations staff writer Myrna Anderson