Goldwater Scholars share passion for research, scientific discovery

Northeastern students Hannah Tam and Benjamin Moran have received prestigious Goldwater Scholarships. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Benjamin Moran and Hannah Tam have seized myriad opportunities to engage in undergraduate research at Northeastern, both on campus and on co-op. Moran is a marine biology major whose experiences have ranged from labs at the university’s Marine Science Center to field research off the shores of Panama. Tam has explored the building blocks of human movement in Northeastern’s Action Lab and is genetically editing human hematopoietic stem cells on her current co-op.

They are both Honors students in the College of Science, and they share a passion for research. Now they also share the distinction of being named Goldwater Scholars.

The Goldwater Scholarship is a prestigious national award based on academic merit that is given to undergraduate sophomores and juniors who intend to pursue research careers in the natural sciences, mathematics, and engineering. The Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation awarded 240 scholarships for the 2017-18 academic year to students across the United States. Northeastern students Minhal Ahmed, E’19, and Trevor Gale, E’18, also earned Honorable Mentions this year.

“Receiving this scholarship means a lot to me,” says Moran, S’18, who was named a Goldwater Scholarship Honorable Mention in 2015. “It shows a nice track of my progress. Earlier in my career I didn’t quite have a clear idea of what I wanted to do. But from the experiences I’ve had in my third and fourth years here, I have a much clearer idea.”

In his first two years at Northeastern, Moran amassed a variety of undergraduate research experience and earned a Hollings Scholarship from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Over the next two years, he says, a combination of new marine science research experiences has allowed him to expand his knowledge and field studies in areas such as evolutionary genetics and biogeography.

He says participating in Northeastern’s Three Seas Program, working on co-op at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and his research as part of the Hollings Scholarship have been being instrumental in shaping his future outlook. He plans to focus his research on marine molecular ecology and pursue a doctorate in marine biology after graduating next spring.

The Three Seas Program, he says, was particularly transformative. Through this yearlong experiential program in marine science, he took graduate-level courses and studied the Gulf of Maine ecosystem at the Marine Science Center, coral reef and tropical terrestrial ecosystems in Panama at two field stations of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and the Pacific Northwest subtidal at Friday Harbor Laboratories in Washington state.

In Panama, Moran met Oscar Puebla, a professor at the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel in Germany and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. He has since arranged a research co-op with Puebla, which begins this summer and will take him to Germany, Belize, and the Florida Keys. His work will involve studying the ecological drivers and genomic basis of speciation in Caribbean reef fish—specifically two species of the hamlet fish.

Moran also recently received a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant, which will support the field-based portions of his international co-op. “I’ve always looked up to National Geographic and aspired to the explorer archtype,” he says.

A love for science and music

Tam, for her part, has had powerful research experiences, including working in professor Dagmar Sternad’s Action Lab where she explores human neuromotor control and brings the experiments out of the lab by collecting data and doing public outreach at the Museum of Science in Boston. In professor Javier Apfeld’s lab, she uses molecular genetic techniques to better understand genetic interactions and synergies between lifespan-extending mutations. And now on co-op at Editas Medicine in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she is researching gene-editing approaches to treating sickle cell disease.

“I am inspired by the complexities of interdisciplinary research,” says Tam, S’19, noting for instance that her experiences in the Action Lab have led to a fascination with neuroscience.

From an early age, Tam not only developed an interest in science but also music. She thumbed through human anatomy picture books with curious fascination, and she took up the clarinet when she was 8. Tam is now dually enrolled at Northeastern and the New England Conservatory, and she plays clarinet in the Northeastern Symphony Orchestra and the New England Conservatory Chamber Ensemble.

Tam is also integrating her deep appreciation for music with her research interests. She plans to focus her future work, including her doctoral studies, on neuromotor control in musicians—specifically those who play piano and other instruments that require significant bimanual actions. Her goal is to shed greater light on whether human coordination is without bounds, or if there are limitations in neuroplasticity.

When Tam returns home from co-op, she says she often likes to practice the clarinet. She says she’s thrilled that she didn’t have to choose between science and music when she got to Northeastern. “Playing music involves a different kind of brain power than science and research,” she says. “I’ve really enjoyed being able to do both.”