Motility of microscopic cells, signals from dying stars and mathematical “moonshine” are among the topics that interest Amherst’s 2022–23 Goldwater Scholarship winners. Juniors Cailin Plunkett, Jacqueline Shen and Ethan Spingarn are among the 417 outstanding STEM students nationwide chosen by the Barry Goldwater Scholarship & Excellence in Education Foundation to receive financial support for the coming academic year. Read on to find out about the research they’ve been doing with faculty mentors at Amherst and beyond.

Cailin Plunkett ’23

Calin Plunkett “I’ve studied the birth of planets and the death of stars, disparate fields united in the novelty of the methods used to study them,” wrote Cailin Plunkett ’23 in her application for a Goldwater Scholarship.

She’s done much of this research with Assistant Professor of Astronomy Kate Follette. In summer 2020, they used a database of exoplanets (planets outside our solar system) to investigate how the formation of these planets diverges from the process by which stars are formed. “I loved the analytical dance to corroborate—or rule out—formation theories, which required interaction between astrophysics, statistics, engineering and computer science,” Plunkett wrote.

The following summer took her to Caltech’s Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) lab. “The gravitational waves that it can detect are really, really small, so that the detectors [are] also finding a whole lot of noise,” she says. Her job was to compare the efficacy of two ways of modeling that random noise and separating it from the meaningful gravitational wave signals, which come from black holes—the remnants of dying stars. This summer, she will travel to the University of Michigan to research a different kind of gravitational wave.

Plunkett has had her eyes on the sky since her childhood in the San Francisco Bay Area. Using her home computer, she participated in UC Berkeley’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), and her parents, who worked in biotech and forensic chemistry, took her to Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows to watch the Perseid meteor shower every year. “I never felt more awe than when I saw a meteor streak by,” she recalled in her Goldwater application. To Plunkett, who has synesthesia, numbers and concepts were literally colorful—she might visualize a multiplication problem, for instance, as “yellow times blue”—so she “grew up seeing the world as the product of dynamic patterns.”

Now a physics and math major at Amherst, Plunkett has been an executive board member of Spectra, a club that encourages first-year students, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds, to major in physics and astronomy. She won the College’s Porter Prize in astronomy as a first-year. In addition, she wrote, “As a student representative on the Physics and Astronomy Department’s Climate and Community Committee, I work to identify and address systemic barriers to success in the field, within and beyond the department.”

“The support that I’ve gotten at Amherst,” Plunkett says, “has reminded me just how happy I am that I chose a small liberal arts college where I could get these one-on-one mentorship opportunities and interactions with faculty that are so positive, because it’s really given me the courage to chase after an academic career that I knew was not going to be easy, but I feel like I have the tools to do that.”

And what career is she chasing? “I intend to earn a Ph.D. in astrophysics and become a professor at a research institution. I hope to conduct research at the intersection of data analysis and theory, studying the most enigmatic objects in the universe: black holes, which are manifestations of fundamental physics we can probe from millions of light-years away.”

Jacqueline Shen ’23

Jacqueline Shen Jacqueline Shen ’23 says her “scientific awakening” came from a battered old textbook when she was in fifth grade. “Riffling through the pages at my desk, my eyes stopped on a text that read: ‘the universe is 13.8 billion years old,’” she wrote in her Goldwater application. “I remember thinking with real wonder: How did we figure this out?

But it was her first internship in cell biology, which began at ShanghaiTech University when she was still a high school student, that truly “cemented my desire to pursue research,” she wrote. “I fell in love with the scientific process of noticing something interesting and wanting to understand it further, developing a plan to figure it out, experimenting and troubleshooting when things go awry, and ultimately discovering something new.”

Shen’s experiments and discoveries continue now that she is a biochemistry and biophysics major at Amherst. She works in the lab of Assistant Professor of Biology Marc Edwards, using the slime mold Dictyostelium as a model to study the role of a protein called phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase in cell movement. She gives special thanks to Edwards—soon to be her senior thesis adviser—for her Goldwater win: “He let me into his lab as an annoying baby first-semester freshman. I’ve learned so much from him over the past three years! This wouldn’t have been possible without his help.”

Shen is also a teaching assistant in the molecular genetics lab of Assistant Professor of­­ Biology Jeeyon Jeong. She has been active in the Amherst Association for Women in Science, the Biochemistry and Biophysics Advisory Group and Being Human in STEM. She spent the summer of 2021 working with The University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering, and this summer will find her at Harvard, participating in the residential Amgen Scholars Program in biotechnology.

Shen knows that not everyone has equal access to such opportunities. In her Goldwater application, she wrote about being raised by her grandparents on a farm in a Chinese village called ZhangGeZhang: “Growing up there meant pigpens and no indoor plumbing, with overcrowded classrooms missing desks and textbooks.” But her parents worked hard to enable her to attend a private high school in Shanghai that seemed like a “world of wealth and privilege” in contrast. Shen’s awareness of these class disparities inspired her to establish the ZGZ Education Fund to provide books, heaters and other supplies to rural schools.

Her future aspirations relate to socioeconomic equity as well. “I intend on pursuing a Ph.D. in immunology and a postdoctorate, eventually starting my own biotech company,” she wrote. “I hope to develop affordable, accessible therapeutics and help mitigate the effects of profound health inequity throughout impoverished areas of America and globally.”

Ethan Spingarn ’23

Ethan Springarn “I’ve been doing this work because I enjoy it. And that is enough to make me want to continue to do it by itself,” says Ethan Spingarn ’23 of the research that has earned him a Goldwater Scholarship. Sometimes he has doubted whether it’s meaningful to anyone beyond a small circle of high-level mathematicians and physicists. But “the scholarship has told me that there are people outside of that very niche group of people who do care about this work.”

Spingarn’s work as a physics and math double major has included designing a circuit board for use in the lab of Associate Professor of Physics David Hanneke, and contributing to Assistant Professor of Mathematics Ivan Contreras’ long-term project of developing a discrete theory of quantum mechanics. He has collaborated with Assistant Professor of Mathematics Harris B. Daniels on a proof showing that the proportion of mathematical groups that are Abelian—“meaning that the order in which you put two objects into your function doesn’t matter,” Spingarn explains—is infinitely small compared to how many are non-Abelian; he and Harris are still working on a version of the proof that would be clearer to undergraduate math students.

Spingarn—who comes from Wynnewood, Pa., and has been active in Amherst’s Math Club, Outing Club and Board Games Club—has twice scored in the top 500 among U.S. undergrads in the Mathematical Association of America’s annual Putnam Competition, and twice received Amherst’s Walker Prize in Problem Solving, as well as winning the physics department’s Bassett Prize in 2020. He’s spending his junior year abroad, taking graduate-level math courses at Oxford University, after which he’ll join Brown University’s Summer@ICERM program, working on mathematical “parking functions,” which can be explained in terms of cars filling spots in a parking lot. Spingarn’s senior thesis, advised by David Cox, the William J. Walker Professor of Mathematics, Emeritus, will relate to a theory with the surprising name “monstrous moonshine.”

After that, Spingarn intends to earn a Ph.D. and become a mathematical physicist, to “translate physics phenomena into mathematical terms and apply math theories to gain new insights into physics,” he wrote in his Goldwater application.

“Besides research, I hope to teach undergraduates, especially introductory courses. I hold  dearly the notion of making STEM accessible to all, and the Math and Physics 101’s of the world are where students usually decide whether to continue studying those subjects.” Citing his own “experience as both a peer tutor and teaching assistant,” he wrote of his excitement “to show that math and physics are, indeed, for everyone.”