Goldwater Scholars: Two winners, one honorable mention

Two Yale students have won Barry M. Goldwater Scholarships for the 2010-2011 year to pursue careers in mathematics, engineering or science

They are Dakota McCoy, a sophomore studying ecology and evolutionary biology, and Durga Thakral, a junior studying molecular biophysics and biochemistry. A third Yale student — Laure Flapan, a junior studying mathematics — received an honorable mention. Brief profiles on the students follow:

Dakota McCoy

A native of Pittsburgh and resident of Branford College, McCoy discovered her first research project on her own while taking the course “Collections at the Peabody Museum” with Professor Leo Buss. During the class, McCoy discovered several strange skulls belonging to South American extinct mammals that were classified as rodent-like. She hypothesized that these actually belonged to mammals that served the same role in the ecosystem as woodpeckers, since there were no such avian species present.

Her next project furthered her interest in evolution, and found her measuring 732 Connecticut songbirds to see if their size varied according to Begmann’s rule, which postulates a correlation between climate and body size.

Though interested in paleontology and evolution, McCoy is branching out to the related field of behavioral ecology, and will spend the summer working with psychologist Professor Laurie Santos in her Rhesus Macaques lab in Cayo Santiago, Puerto Rico. She hopes to continue her work at Yale — which, she says, allows her to “dive into original research” and “offers one-on-one time with professors who are world leaders in their fields.”

Durga Thakral

Thakral, from Chicago, is currently doing research in the molecular biophysics and biochemistry lab of Professor Scott A. Strobel. Her work at present focuses on DNA analyses of fungi collected from Strobel’s “Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory” class. With this analysis, she hopes to find compounds that inhibit protein synthesis in bacteria but not in humans — a first step to creating new antibiotics.

Thakral says she has “always been interested in how things work.” This interest blossomed through her experience in the Prospectives on Science program her freshman year. After attending various seminars, lectures and talks on a variety of scientific subjects, she says she found herself fascinated by molecular biochemistry and biophysics.

Thakral applied to the Goldwater Scholarship with a project aimed at developing micron-sized biodegradable polymers that can be used to track cells in living organisms. A resident of Pierson College, Thakral calls much of her experience at Yale “wonderful” and specifically points to the amount of talent, knowledge and willingness to share she has encountered in her work at Yale. She hopes to obtain an M.D./Ph.D., and go on to work in clinical research.

Laure Flapan

Flapan, who hails from Arcadia, California, is interested in pure mathematics research that overlaps with theoretical computer science. Last summer, she worked with University of North Carolina at Greensboro professor Francine Blanchet-Sadri on mathematical objects known as partial words. These objects are used in DNA and protein sequencing by predicting sequences that are not knowable, based on what comes before and after.

This semester, she is studying abroad at an intensive mathematics program in Budapest. Flapan, a junior in Pierson College, hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in pure math and ultimately become a research mathematician.

This year, 175 Goldwater Scholars are selected from a pool of 1,095 applicants. Most of the 2011 winners do scientific research, with 24 in mathematics and 52 in engineering. In addition to presenting substantial research, applicants must have a minimum 3.8 GPA and be in the top 25% of their class.

The scholars will be awarded up to $7,500 to continue their studies.

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