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Two juniors, one sophomore selected as 2018 Goldwater Scholars

Three Duke students were recently named 2018 Goldwater Scholars.

Junior Samantha Bouchal, sophomore Pranav Warman and junior Shomik Verma were chosen as three of the 211 winners from a field of more than 1,250 nominees to receive the undergraduate scholarship focused on mathematics, natural sciences and engineering. The award is given to sophomores and juniors based on academic merit and is worth up to $7,500 per year for two years.

Duke's output increases by one compared to last year, when two juniors were selected.

Samantha Bouchal

Bouchal, a neuroscience major and Angier B. Duke Scholar, found out about receiving the award in a unique way. She had decided to do a CrossFit workout around the time the announcements were expected so she wouldn’t be so focused on it. A call from her parents on her fifth round of lunges broke the good news. 

“It’s a huge honor, more than anything,” Bouchal said. “This is the first time I’ve had my work really recognized on such a big, national level. It’s kind of surreal.”

She said she became interested in research in high school when she got to take an honors science research class that introduced her to building a study from the ground up and communicating scientific outcomes in simple terms.

“I just fell in love with the process,” she said. “Originally, I had thought medicine was my path and that I will be a doctor—and that’s still on the table for me—but I just kind of didn’t see research coming.”

When she came to Duke as a first-year, she got involved with the lab of Diego Bohorquez, assistant professor in medicine and assistant research professor in neurobiology. The lab maps out how the brain and the gut communicate with each other. From there, she spent time at the University of Connecticut researching neurogenetics and at the Mayo Clinic researching spinal cord injuries.

She noted that throughout her time at Duke her research has moved from strict neuroscience to the neurobiology work she does now. Bouchal’s current work in a cancer lab focuses heavily on basic biology and neurobiology, and last semester she worked on a grant that was recently funded for a project on brain metastasis and breast cancer.

Bouchal is the co-president of Duke Undergraduate Research Society and is involved with the Journal Club. She previously served as the student leader and liaison for Duke Clinical Research Undergraduate Experience. Outside of research she is a classically trained pianist and an occasional volunteer with Duke Gente Aprendiendo para Nuevas Oportunidades, an ESL-tutoring service. 

In addition to Bohorquez, her other mentors included Holly Fitch, professor of psychological sciences at the University of Connecticut; Gayathri Devi, associate professor in surgery and associate director of research education at Duke; and Isobel Scarisbrick, associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Mayo Clinic. 

Bouchal said her current plans are to pursue a Ph.D. before moving on to obtain a doctor of medicine degree.

“My ultimate goal is to run a neurobiology lab,” she said.

Pranav Warman

Warman, also an A.B. Duke scholar, is pursuing the B.S. track in both computer science and biology. He said that receiving the Goldwater means validation and a sense of relief as well as support.

“[My reaction was] happiness, definitely—and happiness that it all paid off,” he said. 

Warman began doing mathematical research in high school. He has become more focused on applied research after previous mentor said that pure and theoretical research will have an impact in the next century.

“I’m very interested in applying computational and mathematical tools to some of the big biological problems,” he said.

Broadly, Warman is interested in applying computational methods to neuroscience—for example, finding trends predicting patients relapsing in the psychiatry department. Many of the tools he uses involve machine learning or statistics, and he said that eventually he wants to use big data to understand the circuitry of human brains.

At Duke, his mentors are Katherine Heller, assistant professor of statistical science; Gopalkumar Rakesh, a resident in the psychiatry department; Michael Gustafson, associate professor of the practice of electrical and computer engineering; and Chay Kuo, associate professor of cell biology.

To him, the Goldwater’s recognition for lab work and undergraduate research is important because it’s not something that is always recognized.

“While there’s a significant amount of support for it at Duke, I don’t know if it’s always recognized the amount of time and work you put into [lab work]—and I think the Goldwater does an excellent job of doing so,” Warman said.

Outside of research, Warman is involved with the student dance group Dhamaka, which blends folk dance with American pop music, he said.

Long-term, Warman said he enjoys teaching and pure research enough to continue his education further.

“There’s a very high chance that a Ph.D. is in my near future,” he said.

Shomik Verma

Verma studies mechanical engineering with minors in energy engineering and mathematics. 

"I really felt honored and humbled to receive this scholarship because it means that people think I am capable of being a leader and doing good research in the field," he said. "I was really surprised and I felt very fortunate and grateful to receive the good news."

His research focuses on applying mechanical engineering topics like thermodynamics and heat transfers to energy to solve the energy problems the world faces today. His primary research is in solar thermal energy.

"So how do we absorb the most amount of energy from the sun and use it for useful purposes?" Verma asked.

He's trying to find the most efficient way to use hydrogen fuel cells. Eventually, he hopes to use these projects and skills to develop new energy technology and solve energy challenges. 

Verma works in the thermodynamics and sustainable energy laboratory with Nico Hotz, assistant professor of the practice in the department of mechanical engineering and materials science.

Verma is the president of Duke Energy Club and vice president of Duke Smart Home, which he will be a co-president of next year. He is also a part of Duke Electric Vehicles and is president of an Indian classical music club.

In the long-term, Verma sees himself going to graduate school to get a doctorate, and he eventually wants to do research on the applications of heat transfer to energy. He's still debating if he wants to go into industry or academia, but wants to do research either way.