Established in 1986, the Goldwater Scholarship has long worked to recognize sophomores and juniors who have demonstrated a strong commitment to and potential in research in natural sciences, engineering, and mathematics.
Of the 396 college students awarded the 2020 scholarship across the United States, three were Yale College juniors: Alex Cohen, Kendra Libby, and Jason Yang. In their respective fields of discrete geometry, biochemistry, and chemical engineering, each displayed an impressive level of intellectual vigor, intensity, and passion.
Alex Cohen initially fell in love with pure math in his first year at Yale from a class with Professor Yair Minksy. “The way that we built up abstract tools over time and used them to answer basic questions was beautiful and special,” Cohen said. He then independently studied math over the summer, garnering his own understanding and appreciation for the subject while doing research in computer science and mathematics in Daniel Spielman’s lab.
Cohen gained interest in his specific research field, discrete geometry, after attending the 2019 Baruch Combinatorics REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates). Discrete geometry is the study of finite configurations of objects in a plane. Prior to the REU, Cohen had never been exposed to this branch of pure math, but the summer research program quickly sparked his interest in a field he had never even considered. “It’s a fun way to combine combinatorial reasoning with geometric intuition,” Cohen explained.
Cohen’s excitement for discrete geometry only grew after his summer experience. His research culminated in his own paper, “A Sylvester–Gallai Result for Concurrent Lines in the Complex Plane,” which was accepted in 2020 by the journal Discrete and Computational Geometry.
Reflecting on his undergraduate experience, Cohen first underlined the importance of a broad foundation as a precursor to a future path in research. “You need to, as an undergraduate especially, get a really strong foundation that’s as wide as possible in the field, because you really want to know as much broad context as possible in order to do more research later,” Cohen said.
He simultaneously emphasized the importance of being excited and passionate about your field. “Letting yourself get obsessed with some problem or some book—letting yourself go off on tangents and spending a week working on a problem that doesn’t matter—is really important for personal and academic development, which is a precondition for doing research.”
Mathematics and research are not Cohen’s only passions. Outside of his major, Cohen loves to go on walks, play board games, and do political work and advocacy on campus. He cited his largest extracurricular commitment to be his involvement with the Yale Endowment Justice Coalition.
After graduating from Yale College with the Goldwater Scholarship, Cohen plans to pursue a Ph.D. in mathematics. “The most important thing is to make sure that research is fun; if it’s not, then what’s the point?” he said. Clearly, for Cohen, mathematics will always mean more than a degree or a job.
Kendra Libby is a woman of many talents. She’s a foxtrotting ballroom dancer, a horseback rider, and, perhaps most importantly, a cellular biology researcher. But, whether it’s offering to take her profile writer down to her favorite barn for a riding lesson or showing off the handmade Chewbacca and Dumbledore replicas she crocheted in her limited downtime, she’s always eager to share her passions with others.
After all, when Libby was a young girl, Yale students shared their passion for science with her. Growing up in nearby Branford, Libby participated in the Girls Science Investigation program, which is operated by the physics department. On Saturdays, she would come to campus and conduct various experiments that left her with a lasting enthusiasm for science. “Instead of talking at us, they let us work through [the explanations] on our own,” Libby said. She eventually returned to the program as a project leader.
In high school, Libby researched inflammatory responses during pregnancy, sparking her interest in protein biochemistry and biosignaling. Shortly thereafter, in her first year at Yale, Libby took Associate Dean of Science Sandy Chang’s Topics in Cancer Research seminar, a pivotal moment in Libby’s intellectual life. When cell biology professor Xiaolei Su arrived at Yale that year, Libby jumped at the opportunity to work in his lab. She’s been there ever since.
Libby’s current research focuses on improving existing chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) therapy. T-cells have protrusions that recognize undesirable cells for attack by the immune system. However, cancer cells are unusually good at blending in. CAR therapy, therefore, seeks to improve T-cells’ radar for cancerous cells by adding manmade molecules, CARs. Current CARs tend to get stuck in the middle of the T-cell, where they are useless. So, Libby’s been refining the technique, looking for a way to get CARs to the cell surface by modifying membrane proteins.
Libby looks forward to pursuing a career in academia. That said, she hasn’t always been completely sure about her future in science. As a bisexual woman, it was sometimes challenging to envision herself in high-level research. This changed early on in her Yale career, when through a women in STEM mentorship program, Libby connected with a leader of the graduate chapter of Out in STEM, an organization for LGBT STEM professionals. Libby, in turn, was inspired to revive the undergraduate chapter. “It’s been really fantastic to see someone who’s actually a queer grad student in STEM living and doing it, because there’s so little representation,” Libby said. “Anytime you’re able to actually see somebody like you, it gives reassurance that when you want to go to grad school, you’ll be able to do it.” It’s only fitting, then, that Libby has turned out to be a fantastic role model for young female scientists herself.
Jason Yang has had a chemical engineer’s spirit his whole life. “When I was younger, I was always just really interested in tinkering around with chemicals and mixing things,” he recalled. His mother, a mechanical engineering professor at Northwestern University, stoked the flames of his curiosity, taking him to work with her and exposing him to just how fun science could be. Yang holds onto fond memories of pickle electrocutions and other whimsical experiments he participated in as a kid.
By high school, Yang was an enthusiastic member of the Science Olympiad team, where he got to design hovercrafts and build wind turbines. Being on the team cemented his love of engineering, allowing him to really see the connection between theory and practical problem-solving. “That critical link between learning and creating is what inspired me to continue doing research now,” Yang explained.
These days, Yang is an undergraduate researcher at chemical engineering professor Menachem “Meny” Elimelech’s lab, where he’s worked since the summer after his first year. Yang’s research is focused on improving membranes for desalination, the process by which salts and minerals are removed from saline water via filtration through a special membrane. Yang is currently working on tuning the chemical properties of these membranes so that they can better distinguish between ions of similar size, allowing for more sophisticated filtration.
Yang ultimately hopes that his work can ultimately contribute to reducing global water scarcity.
“In the U.S., we take fresh water for granted,” Yang said. His passion for augmenting the world’s freshwater supply can be traced back to the summers he spent in China with his grandparents, who had to conserve water and energy to a degree Yang had never experienced in America.
Yang’s quest to address this brutal reality faced by many around the world led him to the National Renewable Energy Lab, where he interned this summer. There, he worked on computational simulations of polymers that let him better understand their properties. This experience validated his longstanding desire to transition from experimental research, a trial-and-error process, to computational research, which is more intentional. “[Computational approaches] give you insight into the mechanism, how ions and molecules move through membranes, in a way that’s inaccessible from experimental approaches,” Yang said.
For his graduate research, Yang plans to further explore computational methods. One day, he’d like to be a professor, not only out of a love of research, but out of a hope that he can provide the same transformational mentorship that he has received from Elimelech and his lab team.
Besides science, Yang enjoys practicing calisthenics, listening to electronic music, and learning about modern philosophy. He’s also an avid reader, with a strong preference for fiction over nonfiction. “I want to see the world in a different way,” he explained. It’s precisely that impulse to envision a new world and reimagine our collective future that sets Yang—like Cohen and Libby— apart as a researcher and member of our community.