Hendrix College student named Goldwater Scholar

— Hendrix College junior Erik Urban of Conway said receiving the prestigious 2012 Goldwater Scholarship is “a big feather” in his cap, but he’s humble about the honor.

“One of my friends, when I told him, informed me that makes me one of the top 300 nerds in the country. I thought that was funny,” Urban said.

As the 6-5 student sat on a bench under a gazebo on campus, one arm draped across the back, the 21-year-old talked about how “lucky” he was to receive the award, which is given annually to about 300 undergraduate science students.

Luck, however, has little to do with it.

Institutions are allowed to nominate only four students per year for the award, which was established by Congress in 1986 in honor of U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater to provide a continuing source of highly qualified scientists, mathematicians and engineers.

Hendrix alumnus Todd Tinsley, assistant professor of physics, served as the college’s Goldwater Scholar adviser. He was a Goldwater Scholar in 1997.

Urban is the college’s 25th Goldwater recipient.

“To be nominated is quite a feat, and to be further recommended by the foundation as a scholar is a pretty small probability,” Tinsley said.

The award shows Urban’s quality as a student, Tinsley said.

“He’s as good in math as he is in physics, as he is in chemistry,” Tinsley said. “He’s truly special.”

Tinsley said what separates Urban from the elite pack “is that Erik has done some amazing research both in the physics lab and the chemistry lab.”

Not that it means much to the layman, but Urban said since he’s been at Hendrix, he has worked with Damon Spayde in nuclear physics on the Q-weak project, probing the weak charge of the proton. Urban has also conducted research with David Hales in chemistry, exploring ion molecule chemistry of boron trichloride clusters.

Urban said the Goldwater Scholarship application included a “big essay,” and he wrote about his passion for experimental physics.

“I want to be involved in experiments, probing theories where we can gain more insight into the fundamental interactions of our universe,” he said.

He had been checking the Goldwater website for days when he finally saw the results.

“At first, I was in shock,because I’d been updating this page to see nothing new. I was very excited. I immediately stepped outside class and called everybody I could think of who would be angry that I didn’t tell them ASAP,” he said.

The scholarship will provide up to $7,500 for Urban next year, “but the prestige is just as big, if not bigger,” he said.

“It’s the feeling that some of your hard work has paid off. It certainly means you’re more attractive to grad school, which is important to me,” he said.

Urban said he wants to attend graduate school to study physics, but deciding where “is a project for the summer.”

He will also spend this summer in Virginia, researching particle physics at Jefferson Lab, aka the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility.

Although some people cringe at the thought of physics, it appeals to Urban for many reasons.

“I really like its ability to explain and predict the world around us,” he said. “There’s a rhyme and reason to everything, also the point that we don’t know everything - part of the world we’re still exploring and unraveling.”

Urban said he has always excelled in math and science.

“I had some great teachers at Conway. I really enjoyed my history and English courses; it just didn’t come as naturally,” he said.

High school teachers who helped bolster his background in math and science, he said, were Tim Trawick, physics; Molly Walchuk, biology; and Shiloh Harder, calculus.

Urban’s minor is Spanish, an interest he developed through classes at Conway High School. He spent a month one summer with other Hendrix students in Madrid, Spain, cramming in eight Spanish-literature courses.

“From 8 to 12, we were in class. By 12, my brain was mush. People are flying in Spanish,” he said, snapping his fingers. “It’s difficult subject matter in English.”

He played trombone for seven years in Conway schools and for two years at Hendrix.

Spare time is limited for Urban, who works as a tutor in the Hendrix physics department, but he still enjoys campus life.

He’s on the Hendrix College Ultimate Frisbee team, a game that involves “a lot of running,” he said. “It’s a nice blend of athletic activity, but not the intensity.”

Urban said receiving the Goldwater Scholarship is validation that Hendrix students can compete nationally.

“We have the quality of education we need to compete with schools that have 50,000, and we have 1,400,” he said.

“The Goldwater is certainly the biggest thing that’s happened to me at Hendrix. It’s a huge honor; I’m humbled to win it.”

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

River Valley Ozark, Pages 135 on 04/08/2012

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