Three biochemistry undergraduates garner national scholarships

University of Wisconsin–Madison biochemistry undergraduate students claimed three national awards and scholarships this spring. Clare Cimperman won a Fulbright Scholarship, Leah Johnson brought home a Udall Scholarship, and Nathan Wang earned a Goldwater Scholarship.

Cimperman, who graduated from UW–Madison in 2017, studied both biochemistry and Chinese. Her Fulbright will take her to Taiwan to teach English. She will be teaching in the city of Kaohsiung.

“I was so surprised and honored to win,” she says. “I thought my plans to be a science researcher put me behind students who want to be educators or work in international relations. However, I think having a science background helped me stand out.”

She is currently working at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), studying the immune response to malaria. She said a Postbaccalaureate Intramural Research Training Award from the NIH started her career there and encourages others to pursue the program.

Photo of Leah Johnson
Leah Johnson, co-founder of Campus Leaders for Energy Action Now (CLEAN) and winner of a 2018 Udall Scholarship. Photo: Michael P. King, CALS.

“Biochemistry is a good mix of chemistry, biology, and math and in undergrad I had a very difficult time choosing a major so I thought why not major in something that combines the topics I enjoy,” she explains. “I also think biochemistry is an extremely versatile major that can be used as a stepping stone into many other related fields. My Chinese classes were then a nice change of pace from my lab-heavy science classes.”

After completing her Fulbright, she will be starting a Ph.D. program in microbiology, virology, and parasitology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Johnson, now a senior, earned her Udall Scholarship for her work promoting sustainable energy on campus. The award is sponsored by the Udall Foundation, which honors Morris and Stewart Udall. Stewart represented Arizona in the United States House of Representatives before being named Secretary of the Interior under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. His brother Morris ran for his empty seat, winning it and holding it for three decades. They were both champions of Native American tribal issues and the environment. The Udall Foundation carries on this work.

On campus, Johnson co-founded Campus Leaders for Energy Action Now (CLEAN), a coalition of student leaders from various environmentally-focused groups on campus. She says she saw a lack of collaboration between the campus groups even though their over-arching goals were the same.

“Along with our individual goals, we all want campus to become more sustainable so we formed this coalition to focus on renewable energy and getting campus to start implementing it,” she says. “I’m really proud of the work we did this year. It was exciting to see all of these different student organizations come together to work on this long-term goal. Winning this award was a great validation of the hard work in sustainability I’ve done.”

As a biochemistry and environmental science major, she says she is able to combine a systematic approach from biochemistry with qualitative elements of environmental science and is interested in pursuing a career in policy. She hopes to have an impact on the inequality she sees around her, particularly when it comes to environmental issues.

Group photo of Roger Waleffe, Jason Mohoney, Soren Rozema and Nathan Wang.
From left to right, UW–Madison undergraduates Roger Waleffe, Jason Mohoney, Soren Rozema and Nathan Wang, are pictured at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery. Waleffe and Wang are recipients of the 2018 Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship for undergraduate excellence in the sciences, and Mohoney and Rozema won honorable mentions. Photo: Bryce Richter.

Wang’s Goldwater Scholarship is the result of hard work and dedication to his research and courses in biochemistry and chemical engineering, which are his two majors. He is interested in how the material he’s learned can be applied to biological systems.

“For example, I’m interested in how organic chemistry can be used to synthesize new pharmaceuticals or how machine learning can be used to classify active drugs,” he explains. “It’s really nice to have this validation for all of the hard work I’ve put into academics and research since I put so much of my free time into them.”

This summer, Wang is interning at Genentech in their drug delivery department and in the fall will explore Ph.D. programs in chemical and biological engineering.

“Earning the Goldwater was only made possible by the many amazing research mentors I’ve had in the past,” he says. “There are so many professors and researchers that have helped me over the years. There are just too many to name. I am thankful for them all.”