Three Virginia Tech rising seniors have been named 2019 Barry Goldwater Scholars.

The Goldwater Scholarship is the most prestigious undergraduate scholarship in natural sciences, mathematics, and engineering in the United States.

The recipients of the scholarship span four academic colleges at Virginia Tech:

  • Amber Abbott, majoring in microbiology in the College of Science with a minor in music.
  • James “Jim” Owens, majoring in chemical engineering in the College of Engineering.
  • Esther Wisdom, pursuing a dual degree in biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and microbiology in the College of Science, with minors in Spanish and history.

Abbott, Owens, and Wisdom are all students in the Virginia Tech Honors College.

This year, the scholarship honoring Sen. Barry Goldwater was awarded to 496 students across the United States. The scholarship provides one- or two-year scholarships of up to $7,500 to help cover costs associated with tuition, fees, books, room, and board.

“Each university can nominate up to four students for the Goldwater Scholarship, so to have three of our four nominees selected as Goldwater Scholars is notable,” said Christina McIntyre, director of professional development, national and international scholarships in the Honors College. “Since 1989, 50 Hokies have been recognized as Goldwater Scholars in the colleges of Engineering, Science, Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Natural Resources and Environment. I believe this is a testament to the quality of undergraduate research and faculty mentorship happening at Virginia Tech.”

Amber Abbott is excited to pursue a Ph.D. in infectious disease to research a more effective treatment for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

As a Fralin Undergraduate Research Fellow, Abbott worked in the lab of Andrea Bertke, associate professor of infectious diseases in public health, for two years.

“While many students have a difficult time comprehending the complex concepts and virus-host interactions that we study in my lab, Amber has demonstrated an innate ability to understand both the concepts and the approaches used to study them," Bertke said. "During her time at Virginia Tech, she has become an independent, highly skilled scientist who performs at the Ph.D. level.”

Though she was already interested in infectious diseases, Abbott realized a passion for researching HIV through a VT Engage trip over spring break in 2018. The experience took her to New York City to the Gay Men’s Health Crisis facility. During the trip, she had the chance to interact with patients and listen to their personal accounts about living with the disease.

“Their stories were powerful, and the experience opened my eyes to the importance of developing more effective ways of fighting infectious disease,” Abbott said.

Abbott has worked hard to balance her classes and undergraduate research with working part-time to save money for her tuition.

“My parents have always encouraged me to go to college, even though our financial situation is not prosperous. The Goldwater Scholarship will go a long way toward helping me focus on my studies and research during my final year at Virginia Tech,” Abbott said.

James “Jim” Owens plans to obtain a Ph.D. in chemical engineering with a concentration in materials science, with the goal of developing novel, low-cost materials and fabrication methods to use in energy technologies.

Owens has been involved in several internships, including one at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he researched the electrochemical production of hydrogen peroxide. During his junior year, Owens spent five weeks at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, an opportunity funded by an Odyssey Fellowship through the Honors College. Owens sought to understand the relationship between policy, utilities, and their stakeholders, working in a team that researched scientific literature and conducted interviews to make recommendations for upcoming initiatives.

“The project I spent the most time working on concerned the adoption of renewable, off-grid systems in underdeveloped areas,” Owens said. Through this research opportunity, Owens learned the fundamentals of human-centered design and the economic, cultural, and political constraints that energy scientists must work through.

“Jim’s motivation to perform his particular research project revolves around his strong desire to contribute to sustainable and distributed energy,” said Michael Bortner, assistant professor of chemical engineering at Virginia Tech. “He plans to use this research to further understand technology constraints in the energy sector and how these concepts practically translate to energy infrastructure and distribution. Jim is passionate about his research, extremely energetic, and excited to pursue a research-based career that will have a significant impact on society.”

Esther Wisdom was inspired to pursue a career in science because of the health obstacles she overcame as a young child. Born with a rare heart condition, Wisdom underwent surgery at three weeks old and again at 5 years old that enabled her to live a normal life. Her uncle, born 38 years earlier, had been born with the same condition and died at age 7. “Those 38 years between my uncle and me were the difference between life and death,” Wisdom said. “Having experienced the power of advancing medical research, myself, I want to pursue a Ph.D. to help make more medical success stories possible.”

To do so, Wisdom is planning to obtain a Ph.D. in molecular biology or microbiology to pursue a career in teaching and research. Her research focuses on the interactions between p53, a tumor suppressor, and PER2, a circadian protein, in sporadic breast cancer incidence. Conducting research in the Integrated Cellular Responses Laboratory at Virginia Tech, Wisdom has worked closely with Carla Finkielstein, associate professor of biological sciences. Esther received funding for her summer research experience in Finkielstein's lab through an Odyssey Fellowship from the Honors College last year.

“Esther is a brilliant student, committed researcher, and an outstanding teammate,” said Finkielstein. “Esther displays tremendous skills and versatility in learning and applying a broad spectrum of molecular biology techniques and carries out her own project with remarkable integrity, sensitivity, and responsibility. I only have great words for the tremendous work and passion Esther puts into her research.”

Over the past 30 years, the Goldwater Foundation has awarded over 8,500 scholarships totaling more than $65 million. “Students often have a difficult time self-identifying their eligibility and competitiveness for these types of awards,” said Christina McIntyre. “Faculty’s encouragement and mentorship of qualified students is an essential component of this process.”

For students who are considering applying, please reach out to a research mentor or Christina McIntyre. You can also visit the Honors College’s website to learn more about the Goldwater application process.

Share this story