(Ashland, Ore.) — Sarah Emsley, a Southern Oregon University junior majoring in life sciences, is one of 410 recipients nationwide of the 2021 Goldwater Scholarship – a prestigious U.S. award that recognizes the research work of undergraduates in math, science and engineering.
Goldwater Scholars each receive as much as $7,500 annually for tuition, fees and room-and-board, along with national recognition for their undergraduate research. Emsley has been involved in multiple research projects at SOU, including a recent capstone in microbiology that examined the effects of dietary curcumin on the gut microbiome of fruit flies.
Biology faculty member Patrick Videau suggested last fall that Emsley should apply for the Goldwater Scholarship and – despite misgivings – she eventually agreed to undertake the rigorous, months-long process.
“Up until that point I had not thought myself a competitive enough candidate to attempt to apply for a scholarship at that level,” Emsley said. “The only other scholarship I had ever received or competed for was from my previous employer, and was designed to help me return to school.
“Throughout the application process for the Goldwater, I remained reserved in my expectations of receiving such a prestigious award. I screamed when I got the congratulatory email.”
She has since been awarded two more scholarships for next year – the Cora Styles Memorial Scholarship for $1,300 and the Osher Reentry Scholarship for $5,000.
Emsley, 29, was born in Connecticut, grew up in Sacramento as part of a career-oriented family and was working as an emergency medical technician in Medford – where she owns a townhome – when she restarted her academic career in 2019 as a part-time SOU student seeking to finish her bachelor’s degree. She now expects to graduate in June 2022 with her degree in biology and a minor in chemistry, then will move on to a doctoral program in immunology.
Her previous career as an EMT pointed her toward the study of life sciences, and her coursework and research at SOU have uncovered a career path in translational medical research – working to improve treatment and vaccine options in the fight against infectious diseases.
“The most remarkable thing about my experience at SOU is the overwhelming support by the (faculty members) in both the biology and chemistry departments,” she said. “They have gone above and beyond the call of duty to nourish my scientific explorations and invest in my personal success.
“The hands-on lab experience, opportunities to engage in academic research and one-on-one interactions are the most valuable experiences I have had, and I suspect they’re unique to SOU.”
Emsley is the first Goldwater Scholarship recipient at SOU since 2007, and one of seven this year from the state of Oregon – joining one each from Reed College and the University of Oregon, and four from Oregon State University. A total of 1,256 students from 438 colleges and universities were nominated for this year’s scholarships – no school may nominate more than four students.
“This is great recognition for SOU’s natural science programs, and their commitment to undergraduate research,” said Susan Walsh, SOU’s provost and vice president for academic affairs. “Sarah has worked closely with our faculty on several notable research projects, and we are very proud of her achievements.”
Videau, who has mentored Emsley along with fellow biology faculty member Brie Paddock and chemistry faculty member Mark Koyack, said he is confident that she will achieve her lofty career goals.
“Sarah is an absolute joy to have in the classroom and research lab,” he said. “She approaches her work with a measured precision and thorough attention to detail that allow her to connect the dots between concepts, classes and hands-on scientific endeavors.”
The Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation, which typically awards 260 scholarships per year, partnered with the Department of Defense National Defense Education Programs and expanded the program by 150 scholarships this year to maintain America’s “global competitiveness and security,” according to the foundation’s website.
The application process for the Goldwater Scholarships prompts students to demonstrate their commitment to research and tighten their focus on career goals – skills they will need when applying to graduate schools and for subsequent research scholarships.
“Sarah is a great student who worked closely with Dr. Videau on research projects this past summer and fall,” said Sherry Ettlich, director of SOU’s STEM Division. “We look forward to all she has yet to accomplish in the coming year before graduating and moving on to graduate school.”
Emsley said she hopes the Goldwater Scholarship will help separate her from the competition as she heads into the application cycle this fall for graduate school programs the following year at various research universities.
“I expect that being awarded the Goldwater Scholarship will not only ensure greater financial stability during my final year at SOU, but also open doors of opportunity for my future,” she said.
The Goldwater foundation is a federally endowed agency that was created in 1986. Its scholarship program “was designed to foster and encourage outstanding students to pursue research careers in the fields of the natural sciences, engineering and mathematics,” according to its website. “The Goldwater Scholarship is the premier undergraduate award of its type in these fields.”