May 7, 2004

Student Receives Goldwater Scholarship

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Mark Polking ’05 received tremendous recognition for his academic achievement last month in the form of a Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, an award for science, mathematics and engineering.

“The Goldwater Scholarship is one of the most prestigious scholarships a fledgling scientist can be awarded,” said Peter Clark ’04, one for four Cornellians who received the award last year. “Since the Goldwater Scholarship looks for candidates who already have a strong research background, in picking its winners, the Goldwater Scholarship recognizes its recipients as being some of the best new scientists in their respective fields.” Polking, who studies materials science and engineering (MSE), confirmed the importance of having these credentials.

“I have held several jobs relevant to engineering and the sciences,” Polking said in an e-mail interview, explaining the factors that made him a competitive applicant for the scholarship.

“I have served as a T.A. for an Academic Excellence Workshop for CS100M in the engineering college and as a tutor for math and science courses.”

Polking also said that his outstanding academic record and his background in research contributed to making him an appealing candidate. Polking has also worked on research with Prof. Christopher Umbach, materials science and engineering.

“He began a project to develop a process to cut glass samples to precise shapes so they could fit into a holder designed to allow the glass to be fractured in vacuum and then moved to an ultra-high vacuum scanning probe microscope for surface characterization,” Umbach said of Polking’s research. “He developed a method of appropriately coating the sample with a metal film before fracture so that after fracture the sample could be heated in vacuum by passing a current through the film; the metal film also allowed electrical contact to the surface for scanning tunneling microscope experiments. Mark carried out many aspects of the experiment independently. The novel result that his work enabled — making the fracture surface of a glass conductive so that its structural and electronic properties can be determined — has been submitted for publication in the Journal of the American Ceramic Society.”

Polking described the application process as “reasonably straightforward.” He said that the process involved meeting with the fellowship coordinator, getting three recommendations from faculty and submitting both high school and college transcripts. The University then selected four candidates to endorse, and sent their applications to the Goldwater Foundation for consideration. Polking found out about the scholarship through the Cornell Career Services website.

“If anyone in particular inspired me to study materials science it was Professor Emmanuel Giannelis in the MSE department,” Polking said. “His introductory course on nanotechnology first sparked my interest in materials science, about which I had known nothing prior to arriving at Cornell.”

According to Polking, MSE focuses on the synthesis and characterization of various materials, specifically polymers, metals, ceramics, semiconductors and composites, for different applications.

“Materials science and engineering is an enormously diverse field that incorporates elements from mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, solid-state physics and chemistry,” Polking said. “Classes in the department cover topics such as polymer chemistry, thermodynamics of condensed matter, reaction kinetics, diffusion and many others. Materials scientists are also heavily involved in nanotechnology.”

Professors praised Polking for his hard work and curiosity. “Mark really seems to have an interest in pushing his limits and exploring his interests in engineering and science,” said Prof. Harry Stewart, civil and environmental engineering, Polking’s advisor from his freshman year. “He takes advanced courses because they interest him and he wants to learn the new subject material. He is an ideal example of the ‘curious minds want to know’ student. I think Mark will become a superb researcher and important contributor to his field.”

Umbach expressed similar sentiments, saying “Mark is an excellent example of the motivated and talented students that the Goldwater Fellowship program seeks to support … He is both curious about science and keen for a challenge. His questions and ideas last summer kept me busier than any undergraduate student I have ever worked with.”

Polking said he intends to attend graduate school immediately after graduation, and ultimately hopes to earn a Ph.D. and become a professor in materials science or a related field.

Archived article by David Hillis
Sun Senior Editor