Baylor Juniors in STEM Fields Awarded Prestigious Goldwater Scholarships

May 8, 2019

Media Contact: Lori Fogleman, Baylor University Media and Public Relations, 254-710-6275
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by Gabrielle White, student newswriter, Baylor University Media and Public Relations

WACO, Texas (May 8, 2019) – Baylor University students Micheal Munson, a junior University Scholar from Cupertino, California, and Ben Sepanski, a junior mathematics major from Waco, Texas, have been awarded Goldwater Scholarships from the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Program.

One of the most prestigious undergraduate scholarships given in the natural sciences, engineering and mathematics, the Goldwater Scholarship fosters and encourages outstanding students to pursue careers in these fields. The scholarship honors the lifetime work of Sen. Barry Goldwater, who served his country for 56 years as a soldier and statesman, including 30 years in the U.S. Senate.

“The Goldwater Scholarship judges a student’s potential for a stellar career in the physical sciences and is one of the few scholarship programs in the country focused on supporting students while still at the undergraduate level,” said Jeffrey Olafsen, Ph.D., associate professor of physics and the Baylor faculty representative for the Goldwater program. “To be awarded a scholarship means that the student is judged to potentially be on track for a stellar career in the STEM fields and worthy of support at the national level, having achieved this recognition in competition with students from all across the country.”

From hypertension to computational research

As a University Scholar, Munson is concentrating his studies in biochemistry and applied mathematics. At Baylor, his primary research and teaching mentor has been Bryan F. Shaw, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, whose research on retinoblastoma, a devastating pediatric eye cancer, led to the development of an app that can detect leukocoria (“white eye”) in photographs of children with eye cancer and other diseases. This summer, Munson will return for a third summer research internship at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, where he studies Type II Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension (PAH).

In addition to Shaw, Munson has given praise to Tamarah Adair, Ph.D., senior lecturer of biology, who first introduced him to intensive research through her research-based molecular and microbiology course; and Jeffrey Fish, Ph.D., associate professor of classics.

“Baylor has a unique blend which separates its environment from several other universities throughout the world,” Munson said. “Baylor strives to become a research-intensive university, while also focusing on having a premiere education, classroom wise, and honing its Christian values. I think this triad, of which Baylor is particularly strong in all three of them, were vital for the type of education I wanted to pursue.”

Munson said his goal is to obtain an M.D./Ph.D. in statistics and biochemistry and eventually conduct translational research in biomedical science and teach at a research hospital with the ability to interact with patients.
While majoring in mathematics, Sepanski also is studying in the field of computer science and hopes to obtain his Ph.D. in applied mathematics and conduct research in numerical analysis at a top research university, specializing in problems related to finite element methods. His mentor at Baylor is Robert Kirby, Ph.D., professor of mathematics and undergraduate advisor, who, along with other influential mathematics professors have worked closely with Sepanski, guided his path to begin a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates at San Diego State University following his freshman year. His love of computational research has grown deeper each year since.

“I have primarily focused on numerical solutions to partial differential equations,” Sepanski said. “This summer I am continuing a project with Dr. Kirby, based around applying boundary integral equations to finite element methods.”

Along with being a research-intensive university, Baylor has given students the opportunity to work ahead and be ambitious in classes such as math and computer classes, Sepanski said.

Growing post-graduate careers

Munson and Sepanski are among the estimated 5,000 college sophomores and juniors who applied for the Goldwater Scholarship, and the 496 who were awarded the scholarship. The majority of Goldwater Scholars intend to obtain a Ph.D. as their highest degree objective and, in some cases, already have published their research in leading journals or presented their work at professional society conferences.

The Goldwater Scholarship recipients often gain attention from prestigious post-graduate fellowship programs as well, helping grow students’ post undergraduate careers. In the future, Sepanski hopes to apply to several computer science and math programs and work in predictive data analysis or finite elements. Munson intends to apply for Medical Scientist Training Programs (MSTP).

The Goldwater application process began in fall 2018, when Baylor held its internal competition open to any sophomore or junior student in a STEM field. Universities are allowed to nominate up to four students. The nominees then are required to submit an application.

“We matched our best showing so far since I’ve been the faculty representative with two winners at the national level,” Olafsen said. “Christina Gaw, our sophomore winner from last year, earned two years of support, so in 2019-2020, we will have three Baylor University students receiving scholarship funds from the Goldwater program, so in that regard, this year is our best year ever.”

Nationally competitive

Munson said he applied for the scholarship both his sophomore and junior year.

“I had also applied for the Goldwater my sophomore year, to test my research capabilities by writing a competitive application demonstrating a novel research idea, which is very similar to grant writing for future principle investigators,” Munson said. “I am elated to know that I won this cycle, because it demonstrates that I am capable of writing a nationally competitive research application, which is no easy feat.”

Munson, Sepanski and Gaw have all demonstrated potential in the STEM fields after competing with students from Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Stanford to receive the Goldwater award, Olafsen said.
Baylor students who seek a rich – even extraordinary – undergraduate education are supported by faculty affiliated with SPARK (Scholarship Programs, Awards, Research, Knowledge), which is housed in the Office of Undergraduate Studies in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences. Students mentored by SPARK professors apply for prestigious scholarships, fellowships, internships and research experiences at the national and international level, including the Fulbright, Truman, Gates Cambridge, Boren and Rhodes, and for other notable awards, such as the Goldwater, Pickering, Humanity in Action, Critical Language Scholarship and National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU).

For more information, visit the SPARK website at

Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 17,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 90 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.