WWU students awarded pair of ultra-competitive scholarships

Friday, May 31, 2019

Like cherry blossoms opening up on campus or Frisbees flying across the Old Main lawn, certain activities indicate that spring has sprung at Western, and one of those annual rites is celebrating the successes of Western students and the scholarships and fellowships they have been awarded, from NOAA Hollings fellows to Fulbright winners.

But this spring has been different, as a pair of students have been awarded a pair of ultracompetitive scholarships that places WWU in extremely rarified company, with junior Biology major and member of the Honors Program Darby Finnegan being awarded the first Barry Goldwater Scholarship since 2007, and junior Environmental Science major Risa Askerooth being awarded the first Udall Scholarship in more than a decade as well.

Finnegan’s incredibly competitive $7,500 scholarship is awarded to college sophomores and juniors who intend to pursue research careers in the natural sciences, mathematics and engineering, and is awarded to fewer than 10 percent of those who even qualify to be part of the rigorous application process.

Finnegan said she was honored to be Western’s first Goldwater recipient in more than 12 years.

“At first, I was just surprised,” she said. “Then I was overwhelmed with gratitude, both for the scholarship itself and for everyone who helped make it possible.”

Finnegan applied for the Goldwater in January with the help of WWU Fellowship Office Director Tom Moore, who had previously worked with her on other scholarships.

“It’s so wonderful Darby was able to receive the Goldwater,” Moore said. “The scholarship is really competitive, to even be in the running you typically need to have at least one scientific publication, and as an undergraduate that’s tough.”

In the summer following her freshman year, Finnegan was a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Scholar at Friday Harbor Laboratories through the University of Washington and the National Science Foundation — and it is no small feat to win such a competitive scholarship as a freshman.

As an REU Scholar, Finnegan was able to research the adaptive evolution of sculpin fish and present the results at Friday Harbor Laboratories. She shared the results at the Gilbert Ichthyological Society annual meeting in fall 2017, a Pacific Northwest-based group fostering communication about ichthyology (the study of fish). 

A native of Grangeville, Idaho, Finnegan said she has always enjoyed being outside and in the water. Growing up she would visit family on the Washington coast and play on beaches and in tide pools. As she grew older, the ocean continued to be a breathtaking and mysterious place for her, and as she continued to participate in different projects related to fish, she started becoming more interested in them.

“Fish are an incredibly diverse group,” Finnegan said. “There’s always an opportunity to learn more and more about them.”

Finnegan said this summer she will work on an independent research project with WWU Environmental Science Professor Leo Bodensteiner at Shannon Point Marine Center, where they will look at how the swimming mechanics of rainbow trout might change with increased carbon dioxide levels.

“I'm lucky to be surrounded be mentors and advisors who have invested time in helping me learn and reach my goals. I honestly cannot thank them enough,” she said.

After her graduation next spring, Finnegan plans to look into graduate programs working on ecophysiology, the study of the relationship between an organism’s internal functions and external environments; or biomechanics, the science of movement of a living body. Whichever path she takes, she knows her work at Western and the research she has been able to complete have put her in a place to succeed.

“My desired career path in biology often feels equal parts exciting and terrifying, and I've doubted myself at times,” she said. “But receiving the Goldwater means that my efforts have been worthwhile, and it gives me confidence that I can do well in a research career.”


From the North Shore to the Salish Sea

Askerooth, a native of Haleiwa, Hawaii, said she felt incredibly honored to claim WWU’s first Udall Scholarship in more than 10 years.

“I just want to give a huge thank you to Tom Moore and my letter writers, Johnathan Riopelle of the Office of Sustainability and James Helfield of the Huxley College of Environment,” she said. “I feel hugely indebted to them.”

The $7,000 Udall Scholarship is awarded to college sophomores and juniors who show public service, leadership, and commitment to issues related to Native American nations or the environment. The Udall Foundation awards the Udall Undergraduate Scholarship to 55 out of about 450 undergraduate student applicants – like the Goldwater, fewer than 10 percent of applicants are awarded with the scholarship.

Helfield said he was not surprised by Askerooth’s award.

“I could not think of a more deserving student,” he said. “It gives me great comfort to know that she is one of the people who will be working on solutions for our environmental problems in the future.”

Last spring, Askerooth was among five students from Western who were awarded the Ernest F. Hollings Undergraduate Scholarship through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. During that time she also received an Udall honorable mention.

Moore said Askerooth was deserving of the award, and would represent WWU well.

“Risa’s smart, modest and wonderful to work with,” Moore said. “I really enjoy working with the students and helping them to succeed in these kinds of applications that are nationally competitive.”

Askerooth said she knew after high school she wanted to attend a university with a strong environmental program.

“Huxley has a great reputation as one of the oldest environmental colleges in the U.S., and I think so many students on this campus are plugged into environmental justice or other forms of activism,” she said. “I thought that was really cool as someone who hadn’t heard about a lot of these issues in high school and had thought of environmentalism from a purely ecological stand point, and not how it related to humans or other ways in which we live.”

Last fall, Askerooth helped establish a composting project on campus with students Jessica Loveland and Abby Severns. As sustainability representative mentors, they collaborated with University Residences to bring composting to residence halls on campus.

Despite the early success of the initiative, Askerooth plans on doing more during her senior year.

 “I definitely want to keep working on issues related to natural resource management,” she said. “Like working to preserve native or endangered species in Washington or elsewhere along the coast.”

This summer she will be at the Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve as part of the NOAA Hollings Scholarship Program where she will be evaluating the success of a previous fish habitat restoration project in Radio Tower Bay. In early August she’ll travel to a conference in Silver Spring, Maryland to present her Hollings Program research before attending the Udall conference the following week.

After her graduation next spring, Askerooth said she might take a gap year or apply for the Peace Corps; eventually she wants to go to graduate school to get her master’s degree in Natural Resource Management or Conservation Biology. But for now, she’s looking forward to the orientation in August.

“I’ll get to meet the people who reviewed my application as well as all the other scholars who won this year as we network and work on case studies,” she said. “Learning more about the work that other Udall recipients are doing will be really exciting.”

So next spring, as the Frisbees being flying again and the cherry blossoms slowly open to the longer days of the Pacific Northwest, these two groundbreaking WWU scholars will be about to graduate and move on to the next, equally impressive steps in their lives. But they have kicked open a door that has shown to those who follow that anything is possible.

“I hope that in some small way I helped make the path a little easier for the next Goldwater Scholar from WWU,” Finnegan said.