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Caltech Undergrads Receive Goldwater Scholarships

Four Caltech undergraduates have been selected to receive a Goldwater Scholarship for the 2020–21 academic year.

The Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Program awards scholarships to college sophomores or juniors who intend to pursue research careers in science, mathematics, and engineering.

The students—Myra Cheng, John Heath, Aditya Sivakumar, and Alexander Zlokapa—are among 396 college students from across the United States chosen this year from a pool of 1,353 nominees. The scholarships, which were established by Congress in 1986 to honor the late Senator Barry Goldwater, help to cover costs associated with tuition, fees, books, and room and board for one or two academic years.

Cheng is from San Jose, California, and majors in computer science. She works with Yisong Yue, professor of computing and mathematical sciences, and Joel Burdick, the Richard L. and Dorothy M. Hayman Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Bioengineering, on optimization algorithms that can learn individual preferences based on real-time interaction with people. For example, these algorithms can be used in wearable exoskeletons that help mobility-impaired individuals walk.

"I'm interested in how machine learning interacts with humans and, more broadly, human society," she says.

Cheng has also been working with Katie Bouman, assistant professor of computing and mathematical sciences and electrical engineering, and Claire Ralph, lecturer in computing and mathematical sciences, on developing algorithms that address questions of explainability and algorithms that affect social change. The project with Ralph arose from her work creating TechReach, a Caltech class where student teams apply their technical skills to build tools that help various nonprofit organizations. Cheng also helps students with writing at the Hixon Writing Center. She plans to pursue a PhD in computer science, with a focus on conducting research in machine learning.

Heath is a junior from South Pasadena, California, majoring in bioengineering. As a student at Caltech, he has worked with Mikhail Shapiro, professor of chemical engineering, and Jerzy Szablowski, now at Rice University, helping to develop technology to non-invasively interface with the mammalian brain through the use of viral vectors and focused ultrasound. The goal of the research is to provide gene therapy to the brain. Following the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, he began working with his father James Heath, former Caltech professor, now at Institute for Systems Biology, on a clinical study of how human immune cells respond to the COVID-19 virus. 

In his free time, Heath has performed with Szechuan Sauce, a hard-rock band formed by Caltech students. After graduating, he plans to pursue a PhD in bioengineering or chemical engineering, with an emphasis on using synthetic biology to fight diseases. 

"I want to help develop the tools that let us beat the next pandemic before it happens," he says.

Sivakumar is from Portland, Oregon, and is majoring in mathematics. Working with former Caltech postdoctoral scholar Zavosh Amir-Khosravi, he has been researching quaternions, which constitute a mathematical number system like complex numbers but with the interesting property that multiplication is not commutative.

"Quaternions show up unexpectedly in theoretical physics, but their mathematics is not well understood. I hope that some of the work from my project will be useful in this regard," he says.

This summer, Sivakumar will be working on a SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship) project with John Preskill, Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics,

that involves quantum information systems. In his spare time, Sivakumar tutors high school students in math and physics, and he creates classical music compositions, some of which have been performed by national and international chamber ensembles. He plans to pursue a PhD in either mathematics or physics.

Zlokapa is from Danville, California, and is majoring in physics. He works with Maria Spiropulu, the Shang-Yi Ch'en Professor of Physics, on different aspects of quantum computing, ranging from simulating wormholes to developing new quantum, machine-learning algorithms for use in high-energy physics. As president of the Caltech Data Science Organization, Zlokapa has been helping with activities related to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as redesigning a computer science course to include pandemic modeling. And before the pandemic, he was an assistant concertmaster of the Caltech Orchestra and headed an elementary school science outreach program at the Caltech Y.

"I hope to pursue a PhD and a career in research, perhaps somewhere at the intersection of quantum computing and high-energy physics," says Zlokapa, whose research earned him Caltech's 2020 George W. and Bernice E. Green Prize.