Mason's Goldwater Scholars keep pushing forward

Rising seniors Karen Therrien (neuroscience), Benjamin Concepcion (physics and mathematics) and Brieann Sobieski (biology) received Goldwater scholarships, the preeminent undergraduate award for students who plan to pursue careers in mathematics, the natural sciences and engineering. Photo by Lathan Goumas.

Karen Therrien had no idea she had just been awarded a Goldwater Scholarship.

It was past noon on the last Friday in April, when the announcement was expected. But instead of going to Therrien’s inbox, the notification that the George Mason University student had earned the prestigious prize went to her spam folder.

When Therrien finally noticed the message, she was so nervous she asked Karen Lee, assistant director of Mason’s Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities and Research (OSCAR) and a member of Mason’s Goldwater Scholarship committee, to read it for her.

“I was very shocked,” said Therrien, who just happened to be meeting with Lee at the time.

Therrien, a neuroscience major and a member of Mason’s Honors College, was one of three Goldwater Scholars from Mason. Brieann Sobieski, a biology major, and Benjamin Concepcion, an Honors College member majoring in physics and mathematics, are the others. All are rising seniors.

LaNitra Berger, director of the Honors College’s Office of Fellowships, said this was the first time the university had three Goldwater Scholars in one year and called the achievement “an acknowledgement that Mason’s commitment to undergraduate research is benefitting the students and raising the university’s national profile.”

Awarded since 1989, the one- or two-year scholarship, presented by the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation, is the preeminent undergraduate award for students who plan to pursue careers in the fields of mathematics, the natural sciences and engineering.

It is also a gateway for students applying to graduate schools and searching for research funding, as virtually all applicants and winners intend to obtain a PhD as their highest degree earned.

“It felt like doors were opening,” Sobieski said of the scholarship.

There were 496 recipients of Goldwater Scholarships out of 1,223 applicants this year from colleges and universities nationwide.

In addition to academic transcripts, students must list all research experience and write two essays: one describing their career goals and another on an activity that has been important in shaping their desire to pursue a research career. Because Sobieski plans to attend medical school, she submitted an additional essay to explain her research priorities. Students must also get three letters of recommendation, with the key ones being from their research mentors.

Each of Mason’s Goldwater Scholars credited the university’s Goldwater Scholarship committee—Lee; Jan Allbeck, associate dean of the Honors College; and Patricia Granfield, a mathematics instructor in the College of Science—with helping them complete an arduous process that included more than two weeks of editing and rewriting essays.

“It’s a real statement that these are students who are not in the classroom just to get grades,” Granfield said. “These are kids willing to go above and beyond. They are goal-driven. Every year I come away feeling so lucky I get to work with them.”

Though the Goldwater Scholars have another year at Mason, future plans are already taking shape.

Sobieski, of Fairfax, Virginia, said she hopes to earn her MD and PhD and research noninvasive biomarkers while continuing her interest in multiple medical specialties. Therrien, who is from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and has worked as a peer mentor with the Mason Autism Support Initiative, is interested in researching neurodevelopmental disorders. Concepcion, also of Fairfax, has his sights set on a PhD.

Asked about her decision to come to Mason, Therrien, a University Scholar, noted Mason’s focus on undergraduate research.

“But the main thing was I knew I wanted to do something connected to developmental disabilities, special needs, and Mason has a lot of connections in that realm,” she said.

With a Goldwater Scholarship, students have potential connections, too.

“I was really surprised,” Concepcion said about being awarded the scholarship. “I told everybody. Goldwater will help push me forward.”