Kennesaw State biochemistry student receives coveted Barry M. Goldwater scholarship

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KENNESAW, Ga. (April 2, 2013)— A Kennesaw State University student has received a Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, a prestigious and competitive award given annually to highly qualified students planning to pursue careers as scientists, mathematicians or engineers. It is the first time a Kennesaw State student has received the scholarship.

Jiexi Liao, a junior majoring in biochemistry, received the scholarship, which will cover up to $7,500 of her college costs starting the fall 2013 semester. Liao, who graduated from Carlton J. Kell High School in Cobb County, has maintained a 4.0 grade point average at Kennesaw State. The 22-year-old student was a Presidential Emerging Scholar, has received numerous awards while at Kennesaw State and spent last summer assisting research in magnetic materials at MIT.

“She will no doubt have a great future as a research scientist,” said Mark Mitchell, the chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “Universities use it as a point of pride when their students receive awards such as the Goldwater Scholarship because of its highly competitive nature. One of our own majors has distinguished herself in a nationwide competition rewarding excellence in science. This award represents a tremendous accomplishment for Jiexi and certainly reflects positively on Kennesaw State and the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. We are very proud of Jiexi and wish her the best as she continues her studies and pursues a career in biochemistry and materials science research.” 

Ken Harmon, provost and vice president for academic affairs, praised Liao. “We are extremely proud of Jiexi Liao’s achievement. Her love of learning and her dedication inspire us all. She is a standout student. We congratulate her.”

Liao’s recognition by the Goldwater program was based partly on her involvement in research carried out with Jeremy Gulley, an assistant professor in Kennesaw State’s Department of Biology and Physics. Gulley’s research involves computer simulations of how laser pulses move through materials that do not conduct electricity, such as glass and clear plastic. The work is funded by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

Liao is biochemistry student working on a physics project, for which she had to take higher level math. She also learned how to write computer code for the project, essentially embodying all of the disciplines represented by the College of Science and Mathematics, Gulley said.  

“She has an impressive ability to master large amounts of new material and complex subjects while being driven by a fundamental curiosity to understand the natural world,” Gulley said.

Liao plans to pursue a Ph.D. in materials science and to conduct research in bio-molecular science as a university professor.

“I’ve always loved science,” Liao said. “I like to know how nature operates.  I am also interested in learning how to mimic nature and how to use the knowledge for practical applications. That's why I want to study materials science in general, instead of biology or biochemistry, in graduate school.”

Music is a big part of Liao’s life. She plays the pipa, a four-stringed Chinese musical instrument, and the violin. She also frequently speaks to her father and friends in China via Skype.

Liao moved to Cobb County in November 2008 from the city of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in southwest China with her mother, Jie Li, who later married Fritz Engels. Liao attended Kennesaw State at the suggestion of her stepfather. In the 1990s, Engels was in a Kennesaw State post-baccalaureate program that prepared professionals to become teachers.

“I talked her into going to Kennesaw State even though it was not a big name. It’s an excellent school with good programs,” said Engels, who taught middle and high school in Cobb County and is now a financial planner. “I told her that she would have a good experience there and it’s turned out to be true. I told her the big names, MIT and Harvard, will follow. Her mom and I are extremely proud of her.”

The Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Program was established by the United States Congress in 1986 to honor Senator Barry M. Goldwater. The purpose of the program is to provide a continuing source of highly-qualified scientists, mathematicians, and engineers by awarding scholarships to college students who intend to pursue careers in these fields. The program identifies approximately 300 scholars each year from a field of more than 1,000 nominees.

Colleges and universities can nominate up to four students, said John Haseltine, an associate professor of chemistry who advises the students throughout the process. Kristen Dunn, a senior and an honors scholar majoring in biology, was an honorable mention in last year's Goldwater competition.

“Liao’s achievement is another example of how Kennesaw State attracts some of the region's top students,” Haseltine said. “Not only do we have some of the best students, but they are on a clear trajectory toward professional excellence.”

In class, Liao always asks excellent questions, said Daniela Tapu, an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry. Tapu has known Liao since she first arrived at Kennesaw State.

“She has a real desire to learn and to challenge herself,” Tapu said. “She is in the top two percent of all of the students I’ve taught at KSU.”

While at MIT last summer, Liao worked with Caroline Ross, a professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

“Jiexi was a great asset to my research project,” Ross said. “She was highly motivated to work on research and took to our project very quickly, despite not having much background in magnetic materials. She clearly loves experimental work and learning new techniques, and has a broad interest in the field.”

-Yolanda Rodriguez