Skip to main content

First-Year Research Turns Up Gold

April 3, 2024
Calvin University juniors Sophie Hruska, Braden DeWeerd, and Madison Hoogstra, have been named 2024 Goldwater scholars.
Calvin University juniors Sophie Hruska, Braden DeWeerd, and Madison Hoogstra, have been named 2024 Goldwater scholars.

Calvin University juniors Braden DeWeerd, Madison Hoogstra, and Sophie Hruska have been named 2024 Goldwater scholars. The scholarship, awarded by the Barry S. Goldwater Foundation, is widely considered to be the most prestigious award for undergraduate students in the natural sciences, mathematics, and engineering in the United States.

More than 1,300 students from 446 schools applied for the award, but only 438 students received it. Students who earned the award say that the environment at Calvin University surely increased their probability of striking gold.

“I started research with Professor David Benson the summer after my freshman year,” said Hruska, “which is somewhat uncommon to start as a freshman.”

Uncommon in higher ed? Yes. But not at Calvin University.

“I got involved in research after my freshman year with Professor Douglas Vander Griend,” said Hoogstra.

“I also started the summer after my freshman year working with Professor William Miller,” said DeWeerd.

All three students were immersed in research before they even entered their second year. And they weren’t carrying out research for their professors; they were researching alongside them.

“I’ve just had so many great opportunities where professors have listened to my ideas and incorporated them into the research, and I think that’s really what’s helped me become a Goldwater scholar,” said Hruska.

“We started a project with the Limongelli Lab in Switzerland, and that has actually probably been what has helped me the most to become a Goldwater scholar because Professor Vander Griend put me in charge of leading that whole research project,” said Hoogstra.

Hoogstra said the collaboration led to sharing, with a team of six Calvin researchers, their research findings last summer at a meeting in Switzerland.

“It was really cool to be the project lead as a sophomore, when I think the youngest student there [at the lab in Switzerland] was a Ph.D. student,” said Hoogstra.

For DeWeerd, he’s now involved in his second research lab – this time with Professor Keith Grasman.

“Both research projects have significant implications for human health in the region as well as for environmental and wildlife population health,” said DeWeerd. “And my current project feeds directly into multiple government agencies, so it has capacity to actually make significant policy change too.”

The students said their research has also helped them discover their path forward.

“Research really develops both interest and skills outside of a classroom setting. A lot of the skills are best learned through experience,” said DeWeerd. “And for me, doing research that first year reshaped my entire plan for how I was going to approach the other three years of college. . . . As you go, you can be more and more prepared for graduate school and start preparing much earlier.”

“When you get that hands-on experience, it really changes how you learn in the classroom because instead of just memorizing information, you’re focusing on how [to] apply [it],” said Hruska. “And it changes your interactions with your professors from seeing them as someone who is just teaching you, to [seeing them] as someone you can interact with and collaborate with.”

The relationships built in the lab are ones that the students see paying dividends far beyond their four years at Calvin.

“Having that extra one or two years of researching . . . compared to being in a big R1 university allows you to get to know a professor so much better,” said Hoogstra. “They can write such a good letter of recommendation for you, which is important for not only grad school and applications such as the Goldwater, but also for other internships.”

“It’s just been an amazing opportunity to work with professors who really care about your research and care about you as a person," said Hruksa. “The Christian community is huge, and just having that perspective on everything that you do – that it is not just about your research – [includes] thinking about how it’s going to impact other people . . . and having those conversations of ‘Why am I doing these things, and why am I choosing this for my future?’”

When each of the three scholars visited Calvin University as prospective students a few years ago, they said “the environment drew me in.”

Now, three years later, they are glad they chose Calvin.

“It’s been pretty much the most formative experience of my life, and I would not give that up,” said DeWeerd. “For me, it’s been an integration of coursework, research, and social interaction, as well as faith-based practices – and at Calvin there hasn’t really been a clear distinction between those for me, and I’ve really enjoyed that because it doesn’t feel like I have to switch between different aspects of myself to do different things in my life. I’ve really developed into kind of a whole person, and I think that Calvin has been a big factor in that.”

“I’m a very indecisive person, but coming to Calvin has been the one choice that I know has been right for me,” said Hruska.

“I would choose Calvin again for sure,” said Hoogstra.