News | April 15, 2020

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Undergrad researchers become FGCU’s first Goldwater Scholars

Two Florida Gulf Coast University students have been awarded a prestigious undergraduate scholarship committed to developing the next generation of researchers in the natural sciences, engineering and mathematics. FGCU junior Alex Marsh and sophomore Grace Anderson are 2020 Barry Goldwater Scholars.

Marsh and Anderson are the first FGCU students to receive this honor in FGCU’s history. The Honors College pair are among the 361 Goldwater Scholars named this year out of 1,343 college sophomores and juniors nominated by 461 academic institutions throughout the nation.

“I am happy because with Grace and me winning it, it puts FGCU on the map,” said Marsh.

Photo shows student with snake
Biology major Alex Marsh studies indigo snakes on campus. Photos: James Greco/FGCU

Marsh is a biology major with a passion for snakes. He plans to pursue a Ph.D. in conservation biology and research in tropical herpetofauna, or the reptiles and amphibians of a particular region. He knows this scholarship will only help propel him toward these goals.

“It’s very competitive,” said Marsh. “I am honored to be able to win. It seems surreal.”

Marsh’s research mentor, associate professor Charles Gunnels, says Marsh is one of FGCU’s hardest-working students. From discussions in the classroom to a study abroad trip to Peru with extensive field work in the Amazon, Gunnels says Marsh is a unique student in his dedication to his education.

“In my 12 years at FGCU, I have not met his equal among students. He loves sciences, specifically wildlife and conservation biology. In addition, he is exceptionally disciplined, hardworking and intelligent. Together, these traits ensure that he meets all challenges,” said Gunnels.

Anderson, a double major in chemistry and music, clinched the Goldwater honor at 18 years old. She entered FGCU as a dual-enrolled high school student and says juggling both majors has given her a balance in her academic life. Her goal is to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry and conduct research in the interface of chemistry and biology while teaching at a research-focused university.

“It shows that at FGCU anything is possible. You can distinguish yourself and still achieve a lot,” said Anderson.

She received the news about winning the Goldwater Scholarship while on campus helping to develop a hand sanitizer to donate to the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I got the email while I was working in the lab and I just started screaming,” said Anderson.

Her squeals of excitement were heard and shared with her mentor, associate professor Arsalan Mirjafari. Anderson has worked in the lab with Mirjafari for two years after first meeting in “Organic Chemistry I” class.

Photo shows FGCU student in chemistry lab
Grace Anderson has a double major in chemistry and music.

“Science could be challenging and lab work requires special talent,” said Mirjafari. “Grace is a fabulous team worker. She is supportive, she’s kind, when you need her, she is there.”

Mirjafari admits he is picky when he chooses students to work in his research lab. They have to be passionate, dedicated and original thinkers. He believes Anderson’s diverse skillset is a true asset to the team.

“It’s very rare that you have an artist in your lab because they think differently. If you can think about music and chemistry at the same time, your brain has very special capabilities,” explained Mirjafari.

Marsh and Anderson worked closely with FGCU’s Office of Competitive Fellowships and its director, Terumi Rafferty-Osaki, Ph.D., on their Goldwater applications. Rafferty-Osaki guided them through the extensive process and helped develop their personal stories, or what he calls “Batman stories.”

“Goldwater is looking for young scholars who really want to make contributions not only within their fields, but also for the public good itself,” explained Rafferty-Osaki. “I am thankful they have this life-changing opportunity, and I think it really demonstrates all the great work that FGCU is doing in the sciences.”

The scholarship program honoring the late five-term Arizona senator and businessman Barry Goldwater awards recipients with up to $7,500 to cover the cost of tuition, fees, books and room and board. Winners also become part of an online networking community of previous Goldwater Scholars, giving them access to some of the greatest minds in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“I’ve gotten to meet scholars from across the country, and it has been really awesome to see the amazing things everyone has been doing,” said Anderson.