Four UCF STEM students were selected from a pool of 1,256 nominees across the nation and will receive 2020-21 Goldwater Scholarship Awards.

Only 410 college students were selected after a rigorous screening process. Universities are only allowed to nominate four students, five if one of them is transfer student. According to the award website, the Goldwater Scholarship program “is among the oldest and most prestigious national scholarships in the natural sciences, engineering and mathematics and seeks to identify and support sophomores and juniors who demonstrate exceptional promise in becoming the next research leaders in these fields.”

Harvard, MIT, Yale and Johns Hopkins had the same number of students awarded a Goldwater Scholarship.

The awards are not only coveted because of the money, but also because recipients are thought to have great promise. Many have gone onto receive additional prestigious awards such as Rhodes, Marshall, Churchill and Hertz scholarships as well as National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships to help them pay for graduate school.

Awardees receive a scholarship to cover tuition, fees, books and room and board costs for a maximum of two years at their home institution. All four of this year’s winners have worked with UCF’s Academic Advancement Programs.

UCF’s winners are an impressive group, each already making an impact in the areas of health, math, chemistry and space. They have unique stories about what led them to research and their career goals.

Devin Burris

Major: Biomedical Sciences
University Involvement: Burnett Honors Scholar, RAMP scholar, EXCEL, GEMS, and National Institutes of Health sponsored BP-ENDURE
Career Aspiration: Gene therapy innovator at a private company
Mentors: Assistant Professor of Biology Charissa De Bekker and Assistant Professor of Biomedical Sciences Alicia Hawthorne at UCF and Harrison Gabel, Assistant Professor of Neuroscience at Washington University Saint Louis School of Medicine in Missouri.
Research: At UCF, Burris is working with Assistant Professor of Biology Charissa de Bekker looking at the genes in a fungus that infects ‘zombie ants’ and how they change the ant behavior. At the Washington University School of Medicine, she is working with Assistant Professor Harrison Gabel looking at the genetic basis of neurodevelopmental disorders. She is using computational modeling to understand how mutations in one gene (DNMT3A) can disrupt brain development and function.
Advice for Fellow Students: “Be proud of the work you have done. It is easy to fall victim to imposter syndrome in STEM, especially if you are an underrepresented minority. Once you become an academic, you realize how little you really know about the world. Once you become a researcher, you realize how little everyone else knows too, which in a way can be comforting as you pursue the edge of knowledge together.”
The Importance of Mentors: All three of Burris’ mentors describe her as a rising star thanks to her intellect, hard work and grit, which explains how she’s not only conducting research at UCF, but also at a medical school in Missouri. Burris received the National Institutes of Health funded BP-ENDURE Neuroscience Summer Research Program and began working with Gabel last summer and she’ll be headed there again this summer.

“I was lucky enough to recruit Devin to work in my lab at Washington University in St. Louis through our BP-ENDURE program,” Gabel says. “… She has already made key insights into the genetics basis of this disorder, and I am looking forward to her continued work in the lab.”

At UCF, Burris works with Bekker and Assistant Professor of Biomedical Sciences Alicia Hawthorne, who call her a delight.

“Devin has been resilient and has maintained her passion and excellent work ethic,” Hawthorne says. “… I look forward to seeing what she accomplishes in the future.”

Burris says she is thrilled to be getting the scholarship because it means an opportunity to continue her research and achieve her ultimate goal. She says her mentors were critical to helping her find her way and supporting her. She also says each of the programs she was involved in at UCF and Washington have taught her skills that have led to her success so far.

“I want to go into working on gene therapy in the industry because there are many opportunities to be at the front of medicine here,” she says.

Spencer Tamagni

Majors: Mathematics
University Involvement: Burnett Honors Scholar, National Merit Scholar, member of the Research and Mentoring Program (RAMP)
Career Aspiration: Teaching and applying complex math problems to physics at a university.
Mentor: UCF Associate Professor of Physics Costas Efthimiou
Research: Solving problems at the boundary of mathematics and physics.
Advice to Fellow Students: “Everyone should do research and ‘drink from the fire hose,’ in other words consume as much content in the field as humanly possible… Go as deep as possible with subjects that interest you and do not hesitate to discard things that bore you.”
Take Control of Your Education: Tamagni always loved math and solving puzzles.

“It was the only thing I can see myself being able to get up and do every day without getting dreadfully bored,” says the Tampa native. “Sometime in high school, I developed a bizarre obsession with learning as much math and physics as possible and picked up the habit of trying to solve hard math and physics problems in my free time with variable success.”

At UCF, his mentor helped him realize he could make a career out of his “bizarre” behavior. He says that while coursework is absolutely critical for knowledge acquisition, research is where a student can exert control over his or her education.

“Unlike in coursework, where everything is manufactured and comes from a textbook, in research you get to have much more control over how you spend your time, what content you learn, and how you approach solving problems…It can be very empowering to take control of your learning.”

He also urges his fellow students to recognize their weaknesses and find ways to improve. For him, the Research and Mentoring Program at UCF was instrumental in helping him get organized.

“RAMP has been very helpful in helping me untangle and map out the process of getting from where I am currently at UCF to my desired graduate program,” he says. “They provide lots of support and assignments that help me plan my decisions … I am not a naturally skilled planner, so I benefit greatly from the extra support.”

Oluwagbotemi Akinsoji

Major: Chemistry
University Involvement: McNair Scholar
Career Aspiration: To own her own company.
Mentors: UCF Associate Professor of Chemistry Fernando Uribe-Romo, Georgia Southern Professor of Organic Chemistry Karelle Aiken, UF Assistant Professor of Microbiology Willm Martens-Habbena
Research: Conducting research with metal organic frameworks with a goal of creating rechargeable batteries, which will be a source of reliable electrochemical energy storage that emit less toxins into the environment.
Advice to Fellow Students: “Don’t be afraid to apply to these types of scholarships and opportunities. Even if you do not get it at the first, do not lose motivation. Participate and engage in multiple opportunities available on campus. Find things that interest you and make you happy and pursue the best you can.”
Paying it Forward: Akinsoji grew up in Nigeria and moved to Maimi Lakes in 2015. She’s benefited from a good education, which is why she is keen on paying it forward.

“My career goal is to set up a company that will be able to provide everyday material at a minimal cost to people of third world countries, such as chemicals needed for the manufacturing of soaps, colognes, makeup, and toiletries,” she says. “Coming from a country where everyday materials are not readily available even to the general public, I have made it my mission to make these materials accessible.”

She knows it will take a lot of work to set up her own company, but that’s why she says it is important to take advantage of every opportunity. At UCF, she says the AAP office was a great resource that led her to other opportunities.

“With this program, I was selected to participate in a National Science Foundation-funded research experience for undergraduate students at the Cornell Center for Material Science Research [at UF] this coming summer,” she says. “I have also conducted research at Georgia Southern University… and am a STEM Transfers Opportunities for Nurtured Growth Scholar and an American Chemistry Society Scholar.”

Riley Havel

Major: Physics
University Involvement: Burnett Honors Scholar and member of RAMP
Career Aspiration: Planetary Scientist, which could lead to becoming an astronaut, research scientist, a (NASA) mission leader or a professor.
Mentors: UCF Assistant Professors of Physics Christopher Bennett and Adrienne Dove, and Research Associate Jose Aponte at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
Research: Using simulation of the space environment to study organic material produced and preserved in different areas of space and how they contribute to the origin of life. She has also been involved in designing parts and machining them, conducted quantum mechanical calculations and worked with ultrahigh vacuum instrumentation. She also came up with her own research project to perform spectroscopic measurements studying the interaction of hydrated salts with simulated Martian regolith  (created at UCF) and presented the results at the 2020 Division for Planetary Sciences conference.
Advice to Fellow Students: “Find a friend. My best friend Abigail Reynolds and I have always worked on applications together, discussed our aspirations in-depth, and challenged one another to be more intentional with our time as undergrads. I would recommend that everyone find a friend who has similar goals, but not necessarily similar interests and recognize the value that friendship can add in any endeavor.”
Secret to Success: Havel says talking to people helped her chart her path and helped build her leadership skills, which have helped her land impressive opportunities.

“I spent a lot of time talking to upperclassmen in the Society of Physics Students about getting involved in research,” she says. “Eventually, a few of them helped me draft an email to Dr. Bennett. Soon after, I started attending group meetings and training in the lab.”

And that led to one huge opportunity. Last year she was selected as an Undergraduate Research Associate (URA) in Astrobiology under the advisement of Jose Aponte, an astrochemist and Research Associate at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. She was supposed to be working in the Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory, which is the same laboratory that will be primarily responsible for performing analysis of the OSIRIS-REx and Hyabusa-2 asteroid sample return missions. The lab is internationally recognized as the leader in the world for analyzing extraterrestrial samples. Because of COVID-19, she was unable to perform research at Goddard in person, but she still managed to perform a high-level of research, with limited guidance, Bennett says.

Dove hasn’t worked with Havel on any research, but says she stood out in classes and within the department. She often spoke to Dove after classes.

“Riley is an amazing person, a stellar student, and invested in giving back to her communities,” Dove says. “She’s been actively involved in the physics department since she was a freshman through the Society of Physics Students and the Women in Physics groups. Her leadership and impact in those groups has been impressive. She has already made a lasting impact here at UCF and will continue to do so as she advances to her PhD and beyond.”

Students interested in applying for an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship or other major national awards should contact Morgan Bauer in the Office of Prestigious Awards at