Campus News

Two UB undergraduates win prestigious Goldwater scholarships

Hannah Seppala (left) and Dennis Fedorishin pose together in Davis Hall.

Sophomore Hannah Seppala (left) and junior Dennis Fedorishin are UB's latest Goldwater scholarship winners. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

By CHARLES ANZALONE

Published May 14, 2019

A physics and math major whose self-proclaimed strength is to problem-solve from multiple directions, and the U.S.-born son of Belarus immigrants who is determined to become a “pioneer” in how artificial intelligence can improve national security are UB’s latest Barry Goldwater Scholarship winners.

Sophomore Hannah Seppala and junior Dennis Fedorishin are recipients of the country’s most prestigious and competitive research scholarship offered for undergraduate STEM students.

Seppala has conducted research on sleep deprivation and biomolecules, but pulls no punches about keeping her vast research options open.

“For my career goals and applications, I am still very much figuring out what I am most interested in,” says Seppala, who as a sophomore will receive the $7,500 Goldwater stipend for two years instead of the single year’s stipend that juniors receive.

“I hope that the Goldwater will allow me to explore more of my interests,” she says. “The most interesting and groundbreaking science often takes place where different fields intersect; my research project was half biology and half physics. In the future, I can see myself doing research that is a similar intersection of disparate fields.”

Fedorishin is a computer science and engineering major, whose family came to the U.S. with $600 and only speaking Russian.

“It is absolutely a huge honor being named a Goldwater Scholar,” he says. “My mentor talked up the scholarship semester after semester, calling it the golden ticket to higher education. It definitely feels amazing being recognized for the research I do, giving me more motivation and drive to push forward the field of artificial intelligence.”

A premier scholarship for undergrads

UB administrators call the Goldwater the premier scholarship in the U.S. for undergraduate students pursuing research careers in the natural sciences, mathematics and engineering.

“Since UB is a research-intensive school, undergraduates who intend a PhD come and engage in research,” says Elizabeth Colucci, director of the Office of Fellowships and Scholarships. “Many start the minute they arrive on campus. Those are the students who are perfect candidates for the Goldwater scholarship. 

“The Office of Fellowships and Scholarships seeks out these students and encourages them to apply for the Goldwater, and then subsequently the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.”

Seppala and Fedorishin are among nearly 500 undergraduates in the U.S., from the 5,000 who applied, to receive Goldwater scholarships for the 2019-20 academic year. Established by Congress in 1986 to honor the work and memory of Sen. Barry Goldwater, the scholarship is awarded to college sophomores and juniors who intend to pursue research careers in the natural sciences, mathematics and engineering.

While Seppala and Fedorishin will receive the Goldwater scholarship during each of their remaining years at UB, the academic prestige, networking possibilities and entry into the highest echelon of their respective research circles are more valuable than the scholarship award itself, according to Colucci.

Past UB Goldwater winners have gone on to prestigious graduate programs at MIT, Berkeley, Cornell and Oxford, she explains, and also have won other prestigious awards, including the Marshall scholarship and the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, among others.

A synergy of different disciplines

Seppala has conducted research in the lab of Priya Banerjee, assistant professor of physics, since fall 2017, including a full-time summer internship in 2018. She contributed to studies on nucleic acid droplets as a model for primordial membrane-less organelles, which are regarded as organizers of diverse biochemical and signaling processes in cells.

Seppala describes herself as a physics and math major “well used to being one of the only females in a classroom.”

“I am of the belief that diversity goes beyond what can be seen in a mirror,” she wrote in her Goldwater application.

She credits her older sister, Molly, who was born with severe developmental disabilities, as one of the “most subtle, but nonetheless powerful” factors shaping her life.

“Because I grew up with Molly, I knew that people can be different, and can think in different ways or believe different things,” she wrote. “I also learned being different isn’t necessarily a bad thing; while Molly struggled in school, she is nonetheless an important and valuable member of my family.”

Seppala displays an unwavering and passionate belief that education should be a synergy of different disciplines.

“I know I want to spend my life expanding upon this knowledge,” she wrote. “My mathematics major will help me to process large amounts of data and better model complex systems.

“My physics major is enabling me to learn and comprehend the basic physical laws of various systems, and teaching me to model objects or systems I cannot easily see or touch.”

Consequently, Seppala balances her drive to learn as much as she can with an appreciation and awareness of vast future possibilities.

“The idea that there exist branches of physics so fundamental to our existence but of which we have only basic understanding of is astounding to me,” she says. “I want to be a part of the expansion of basic human knowledge.

“While many parts of my academic program will relate strongly and directly to my future aspirations, I believe that the most powerful thing I am learning is how to solve problems when I am presented with data that does not resemble anything I’ve seen before.”

Math skills fuel interest in engineering

Fedorishin was born to parents who left their home in Belarus, a country “ravaged from the dissolution of the former Soviet Union.” Coming from a home where only Russian was spoken did not help Fedorishin’s transition to American schools.

“Having no influence of English in the household, reading, writing and speaking throughout elementary school was difficult,” he wrote in his Goldwater application. “Falling behind in reading and writing, I found comfort and peace with the universal language, mathematics. At the start of high school, when finally assimilated into the English culture, I found a passion for engineering through my skills in math.”

Tapping into what Fedorishin described as his drive for engineering, he became the first in his family to attend college.

“Having no ‘college fund,’ or guidance from my parents, I alone dealt with the daunting task of transitioning to a university.”

But he became aware of his potential right away at UB, thanks in particular to a teacher’s assistant who noticed him in his freshman engineering seminar class.

“He (the TA’s name was Phil Schneider, and the course was EAS199) brought me into his lab and introduced me into the world of research,” Fedorishin wrote. “With his guidance, I developed a research grant combining my personal hobbies, the mathematics I grew strong in, all with the use of state-of-the-art sensor and 3D printing technologies. From my upbringing in research for this project, I found my passion to pursue research and a higher education.”

Fedorishin says his research involves artificial intelligence, specifically machine learning and computer vision.

“I mostly work in the realm of biometrics,” he explains. “I do research with things like facial recognition, object tracking, emotion tracking a person exhibits within a video, and any other sort of application you can think of with images and videos.”

Faculty offer high praise

As is customary, faculty recommendations were an essential part of both students’ Goldwater applications. John Cerne, professor and director of undergraduate studies and adviser to the UB Society of Physics, wrote how Seppala was one of five UB students he has recommended for the Goldwater scholarship. Of those other four, three were chosen and the fourth received honorable mention.  

“I am writing this letter during winter break,” Cerne wrote. “And the only undergraduate student that I have seen in the department is Hannah.”

Seppala’s work is especially impressive because she is taking many demanding courses and on track to get degrees in both physics and mathematics, Cerne noted.

“In this respect, she is stronger than most of the previous four Goldwater scholars I have known,” Cerne wrote. “Hannah is as talented and determined as any of the students that I have already recommended.”

Fedorishin won high praise from Venu Govindaraju, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, and UB vice president for research and economic development. Fedorishin is the rare undergraduate to fully participate in Govindaraju’s Center for Unified Biometrics and Sensors (CUBS), one of the “premier” labs at the university, which specializes in studies of advanced machine learning, deep learning and computer vision techniques to address problems in biometrics and document analysis domains.

“It is both commendable and remarkable that (Fedorishin) has succeeded in acquiring the requisite skill and the necessary skills to conduct deep-learning research in a very short time,” Govindaraju wrote. “It speaks highly of his ability to grasp concepts quickly and of his determination and resolve to put in the hard work required of a successful researcher.”