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Three Creighton juniors win prestigious Goldwater Scholarships

Goldwater Scholars 2021Creighton University’s sterling record of producing Goldwater Scholars remained strong this year after three juniors were named recipients of the prestigious award.

The honorees are juniors Eli Blaney, Rebecca Powers and Madeleine Urbanek.

Over the past 17 years, Creighton is the No. 1 Goldwater-producing Catholic university in the country and in the top 20 private universities producing Goldwater winners over the past decade. The University is in good company with other private universities such as Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Yale, Johns Hopkins and MIT.

Erin Gross, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry in the Creighton College of Arts and Sciences, says the students’ achievement is especially notable because they did it in the face of COVID-19 restrictions.

“These students have showed excellence not only in the classroom but also on multiple research projects and exhibited exceptional creativity and drive when their lives were turned upside down during the pandemic,” she says. “They did not let it prevent them from doing important research beneficial to society.”

The federally funded Goldwater Scholarship is one of the nation’s most prestigious for young scientists, and highlights undergraduate research incubators such as Creighton, where the Center for Undergraduate Research and Scholarship is giving students opportunities to engage in top-flight research with internationally recognized faculty.

This year’s 410 recipients were selected from an initial pool of more than 5,000 college sophomores and juniors, eventually winnowed to 1,256 natural science, engineering and mathematics students nominated by 438 academic institutions.

Madeleine Urbanek, who has conducted research in the Creighton School of Medicine’s Translational Hearing Center under the guidance of Jian Zuo, PhD, said the University’s commitment to undergraduate research and to mentorship sets it apart from other educational institutions.

Through her research, Urbanek has worked to identify novel compounds that protect against cisplatin-induced hearing loss and has sought to identify the genetic foundation underlying the development of chronic, debilitating tinnitus — the perception of noise originating from within the ear without any actual external source.

“I consider myself incredibly lucky to have the continued support of not only my research mentors, Dr. Zuo and Dr. (Pezhman) Salehi Dermanaki, but also the encouragement and professional advice of my academic mentor, Dr. Gwendalyn King,” she says.

Urbanek plans to pursue a PhD in molecular neuroscience immediately after graduation.

Blaney credits Creighton’s “thriving research community” for instilling in him the enthusiasm for research that led to his Goldwater award.

“I am thrilled and honored to have been selected as a 2021 Goldwater Scholar,” he says. “I am grateful to Dr. (Soochin) Cho for introducing me to research, and thankful, too, for the thriving research community that Creighton has cultivated.”

Blaney has conducted research in bioinformatics in Cho's lab, where he leverages machine learning to predict functional relationships between proteins based on 3D structural data. By tweaking several machine-learning algorithms, he hopes to reveal new insights into the patterns that bring about protein-protein interactions.

He intends to continue researching bioinformatics as he pursues an MD/PhD.

Powers says she entered Creighton University planning to pursue a degree in chemistry but soon felt an additional attraction to physics. That dual interest led to research projects in the laboratory of Kayode Oshin, PhD, where she has focused on the synthesis and analysis of catalysts. She has also engaged in particle physics research as a member of the research team of Janet Seger, PhD, involving the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

The mentorship she received from Oshin, Seger, and also from Gintaras Duda, PhD, she says, was instrumental in forging her path forward.

“I thank them all,” she says. “The tight-knit nature of Creighton’s science departments allows for more accessible multidisciplinary crossover, which has let me pursue my passions in a way that would not otherwise be possible.”

Powers plans to pursue a PhD in nuclear chemistry.

The success of the three students testifies to Creighton’s commitment to providing undergraduates with access to first-class research opportunities, says Julie Soukup, PhD, director of the Center for Undergraduate Research and Scholarship.

“Creighton University is deeply committed to undergraduate research, which is evident by the immense success we have with the Goldwater Scholars Program,” she says. “We are extremely proud of our undergraduate research students, and we relish the position as the No. 1 Goldwater producing Catholic university.

“At the root of our success is Creighton’s faculty-led research opportunities that provide the perfect environment for students to grow and flourish as researchers and scholars with outstanding faculty mentors.”

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