Above: (L-R) Kirsten Snyder, Hails Tanaka and Phia Gierszal have each received the Goldwater Scholarship to support their studies in the field of science, technology, engineering or mathematics. (Photos by Heather Moran)

From a pool of more than 5,000, three College of Charleston students came out on top to receive the Goldwater Scholarship — one of the highest honors for undergraduates studying science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM). Awarded in partnership with the Department of Defense National Defense Education Programs (NDEP), the Goldwater Scholarship aims to foster and encourage outstanding students to pursue research careers in STEM fields.

Honors College juniors Phia Gierszal and Hails Tanaka together with sophomore Kirsten Snyder were among 410 Goldwater Scholarship recipients for the 2020-21 academic year. Each Goldwater Scholar receives a maximum of $7,500 annually for tuition, mandatory fees, books, and room and board for up to two years.

Gierszal, a chemistry and biochemistry major, plans to pursue her doctorate in chemistry with a concentration in chemical biology. Her goal is to conduct research on antibiotic developments in order to optimize new methods of antibiotic total synthesis and teach at a university.

Snyder, a biology major with a molecular concentration and a neuroscience and chemistry minor, is part of the College’s Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) program and plans to pursue a dual Ph.D./M.D. in neuroscience. She aims to conduct research in molecular and behavioral neuroscience with clinical applications, studying neuronal plasticity underlying psychological disorders.

Tanaka, a marine biology major, plans to pursue a doctorate in marine sciences with a focus on the interactions between organisms and the environment. Tanaka’s goal is to conduct research in the marine sciences and work at a research university.

Jesslyn Collins-Frohlich, director of the Office of Nationally Competitive Awards, Honors College faculty fellow and English instructor, is incredibly proud of the recipients.

“As winners of one of the most prestigious undergraduate scholarships for STEM fields, our Goldwater Scholars contribute to a record of excellence in student research and show that the College of Charleston is a great place to develop the skills and knowledge students need to become leaders in their fields,” says Collins-Frohlich.

Gierszal, who attributes the extraordinarily high rate of Goldwater Scholars in the College’s chemistry and biochemistry program as one of the reasons she attended CofC, couldn’t agree more.

“Receiving the Goldwater Scholarship was both a fulfillment of a long-term goal and a promise of much more to come in my future,” she explains. “It means a student has the potential to make an impact on the world through scientific research, a student has applied themselves rigorously to their academic career and a student has had a strong presence of mentorship to guide them through their undergraduate experience.”

Since 2012, the College has produced 16 Goldwater Scholars. The large number demonstrates the high caliber of CofC students and how much CofC faculty encourages undergraduate research. For this year’s scholarship recipients, faculty mentors included Tim Barker, Michael Giuliano, Elizabeth Meyer-Bernstein, Robert Podolsky and Amy Rogers.

”I know that I could not have achieved this commendation without the excellent mentorship of Dr. Timothy Barker, Dr. Michael Giuliano and Dr. Amy Rogers,” says Gierszal. “These professors have inspired me, educated me and helped me become the scientist that I am today. I hope to someday make such an impact on a student and help someone the way my mentors have helped me. Mentorship is, after all, the best way to further the progress of scientific exploration.”

In addition to the financial benefits of a Goldwater Scholarship, GIerszal discovered an added bonus.

“I did not anticipate gaining a new community of like-minded scientists as a result of receiving the Goldwater Scholarship, but I am absolutely thrilled to have a new source of mentorship,” she says. “The Goldwater Scholar Community is designed to fulfill the role of mentorship and outreach. The program connects current and past Goldwater Scholars through online platforms so that members can ask each other for advice or even simply discuss niche topics. I am so excited to see what I have to gain from this community. Being able to ask older scholars for advice and guidance will help me in choosing the right graduate school for me, aid me in strategies to handle the challenges of graduate school and provide me with a network of professionals both in my field and in other fields of natural science.”

The College gave Gierszal, Snyder and Tanaka the foundation to pursue their dreams, and thanks to the financial and community support of the Goldwater Scholarship they will be able to go further in realizing their goals and making a positive impact on the world.