Two Rice University undergraduate students have been awarded Goldwater Scholarships for the 2019-20 academic year — and the fact that they happen to be buddies is no coincidence.
“It’s funny that Sahil Patel and I both won because we’re great friends,” said Jones College junior Takuma Makihara. Both Makihara and Patel were nominated by Rice and selected based on academic merit from a field of 1,280 natural sciences, mathematics and engineering students nationwide.
Makihara, a physics major from New York City, and Patel, a material science and nanoengineering major from Tampa, Florida, stayed up late into the night before their interviews for the Goldwater Scholarship taking turns grilling each other in mock evaluations.
“We would read each other’s essays and quiz each other to make sure we both knew the science behind our research really well,” Makihara said. “We knew that the faculty selection committee at Rice would have professors from different departments so we really wanted to be prepared.”
Their dedication paid off: Their Goldwater Scholarships will cover the cost of tuition, fees, books and room and board up to a maximum of $7,500 per year. They credit their Rice experiences with helping them win.
McMurtry College junior Patel spent last summer in Japan thanks to Rice’s Nakatani RIES Fellowship, working to create a device measuring valley polarization, which would in turn help make computers faster and more energy efficient. This past semester, Rice helped him obtain an internship at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he designed and simulated an atmospheric turbulence emulator as part of NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communications project — work that will one day be a part of the Psyche spacecraft destined to explore the asteroid belt.
It’s work Patel learned to do in classes such as those taught by professor of materials science and nanoengineering Jun Lou and Junichiro Kono, professor of electrical and computer engineering, of physics and astronomy and of materials science and nanoengineering.
Patel also found a mentor in graduate student Jiangtan Yuan, who worked with him in Lou’s lab, where Patel discovered a love of research his freshman year. Kono’s course on electronic materials was a standout, Patel said, and Kono also became a mentor to the young student figuring out a path within the extremely broad field of material science.
“The class really gave me a good foundation for understanding a lot of my own research and helped to foster the interest that I have in this field,” Patel said. “I think it was the first time I wanted to really get to know the information out of curiosity and not just to pass an exam.”
That Rice would offer opportunities for these kinds of projects and coursework came as a surprise to Patel.
“To be quite frank, Rice was never my first-choice school, but my cousin, Rajan Patel, had gone to Rice and highly encouraged me to apply,” he said. “Upon visiting I was blown away by how personal and involved the faculty were in the lives of their students. For a person like me who didn’t have a very clear goal of who they were or what they aimed to be, this was the personalized attention and mentorship I was looking for. This combined with how welcoming the students were and how genuinely happy they seemed sealed the deal for me.”
Makihara knew he wanted to attend a school with the resources and opportunities of a large university but with a strong focus on undergraduates.
“I felt Rice had exactly what I was looking for,” he said. “I am extremely grateful that I chose to come to Rice where I have access to incredible research opportunities and have developed personal relationships with many faculty mentors.”
His freshman year, Makihara was already diving in to the research he’d hoped to conduct.
First, in the biophysics lab of Jason Hafner, professor of physics and astronomy and of chemistry, he used the optical properties of gold nanoparticles to characterize biological membranes. Last summer, he received funding from the Columbia Optics and Quantum Electronics IGERT program to further his research into nanoparticles at Columbia University.
Makihara is now working in Kono’s solid state physics lab, where he’s using the Rice Advanced Magnet with Broadband Optics to study materials subjected to strong magnetic fields and ultrashort laser pulses. He credits his work in Hafner’s lab with helping him chart a path forward as a freshman.
“My research experience with Professor Hafner was extremely meaningful,” Makihara said. “Working on my project with Professor Hafner taught me how to succeed as an independent researcher and affirmed my desire to pursue a career in physics research. When I first joined Professor Hafner’s group, I needed lots of guidance and direction. However, by the end of the project, I felt like an independent researcher.”
Both Makihara and Patel are passionate about their futures in STEM, and both plan to pursue doctorates in their respective fields upon graduation.
“I think STEM research is important because science is a universal language — especially in academia, research is constantly being published and shared around the world,” Makihara said. “I love how that creates a global community of individuals from vastly different backgrounds collaborating on the same project and working towards a meaningful goal.”
Patel likes to remind people that developments like cordless miniature vacuum cleaners, LASIK technology and digital image sensors — inventions that have become mainstays of our modern society — were created as byproducts of the U.S. space program and the brainpower it brought together in pursuit of its goals.
“I think it is very easy to see just what an impact technology has on society,” Patel said. “We as a community are able to have a higher standard of living due in part to the people who have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of knowledge.
“By rewarding these tasks, the Goldwater is encouraging young people such as myself to venture into the unknown, push themselves beyond their own limits and solve the impossible,” he said. “In return, they are helping to establish intellectuals who I believe have the potential to propel humankind forward.”