USF's Goldwater Scholar

Nation’s most prestigious science award goes to electrical engineering student Jean Weatherwax.


Photo credit: Aimee Blodgett | USF News


By Barbara Melendez

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (Apr. 8, 2011) – University of South Florida College of Engineering junior Jean Weatherwax was awarded the nation’s most prestigious honor conferred upon undergraduates studying the sciences, the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, bringing USF’s total to three in the last two years. Each year universities around the country are limited to four nominations and only 275 were awarded for the 2011-2012 academic year. 


The Goldwater Foundation, a federally endowed agency, considers the nominee’s field of study and career objectives along with the commitment and potential to make a significant contribution to his or her field. In Weatherwax’s case, Honors College Dean Stuart Silverman sees those qualities in abundance. 


“Jean epitomizes what USF students can do if they’re motivated,” he said. “What impresses me the most is that she accepts and follows the good advice she’s been given and puts in the work it takes to warrant an award like this one. More than all of her accomplishments, though, she is a polite and modest young woman who you can’t help but want the best for and she continues to make a believer out of me.”


Weatherwax is so modest in fact that even after being nominated to apply she didn’t bother to check to see if she was among those chosen for the scholarship.  A congratulations call from one of last year’s two Goldwater scholars, Amber Schmidt broke the news, to her surprise.


Weatherwax attended to the writing components and rounding up of letters of recommendation for the application between her demanding coursework, her challenging research and generous community service while maintaining a 4.0 grade point average – all of which were taken into account. 


“It’s a very rigorous process,” said the 21-year-old electrical engineering major.  “But in the end  it’s great to receive financial support as well as the recognition that someone out there thinks what I’m doing with my life is worthy of support.”


Weatherwax conducts research into biocompatible electronics.  She spends many hours in her lab coat, surrounded by microscopes and photolithography equipment, or suited up to work in the clean room investigating materials and devices for bioelectronics and neural prosthetics.


“I would like to make better medical devices, and help people,” she said.  She’s particularly interested in brain machine interfaces and in devices that will help people with autoimmune diseases like diabetes and ALS.


Born in Seattle, she moved to Florida’s panhandle in 2005 and graduated from Niceville High School.  A natural attraction to understanding how things work has kept Weatherwax fascinated with science since childhood. She also has a musical side and plays classical trumpet.  In fact, music is her minor.  She has played trumpet in USF’s wind ensemble and in one of the jazz bands. A fan of Mahler and Rachmaninoff, she said, “Music fulfills a part of me, something that I can’t really explain.”


How does it feel to be one of the few women in her field?


“This is typical of engineering, especially computer and electrical,” she said.  “I don't consider myself personally hindered by this; I just strive to be a good student and engineer. I am not sure why there are so few women in the sciences, but I believe it may have to do with the lack of women scientists as role models. Maybe in the future, this will change.”

Weatherwax and fellow student, Yohannes Samuel have started an organization called FLITE – Fundamental Learning for Interdisciplinary Technology Education – that promotes higher education in a community plagued by gang violence.  Members of the new organization have already contracted with a non-profit organization, the InterCultural Advocacy Institute, to work with at-risk students and are developing a curriculum designed to engage them in learning and leadership. An internship with NASA awaits her this summer through the NASA Motivating Undergraduates in Science and Technology program.  On weekends, she is a Big Sister to an eight-year-old girl in Tampa who she finds “adorable.”  And then there’s the book chapter she will be co-authoring on the subject of porous silicon carbide microdialysis membranes.    


You’ll never hear her brag about these accomplishments.  Leave that to Silverman.


“Jean is not one to constantly make you aware of how good she is,” he said. “But when you look at the whole picture, you realize she’s quite phenomenal. She’s taken a basic public school education in rural Florida and used it to launch herself into a very promising future by making the decision to aim for excellence.”


Weatherwax puts it more simply. “I just want to make some cool gadgets and if I can make a difference, then I’ll feel fulfilled.”


About the Scholarship Program


The Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Program was established by Congress in 1986 to honor the late senator, who served for 56 years as a soldier and statesman, including 30 years in the U.S. Senate. The program was created to encourage outstanding students to pursue careers in mathematics, the natural sciences, or engineering and to foster excellence in those fields as well as provide a continuing source of highly qualified scientists, mathematicians and engineers. Scholarship awards are up to $7,500 and limited to sophomores and juniors.


Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.