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Northwestern students win congressional scholarships

(left to right) Lucia Brunel, Daniel Linzer, Kathleen Nganga. Photo by Michael Goss.

EVANSTON - Northwestern University students Kathleen Nganga and Lucia Brunel are winners of two elite congressional scholarships.

Nganga, a political science major in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, was awarded the Harry S. Truman Scholarship; and Brunel, a chemical and biological engineering student in the McCormick School of Engineering, is the recipient of the Barry Goldwater Scholarship

Though from different ends of the academic spectrum, the scholars have much in common.

“Lucia’s and Kathleen’s success underscores Northwestern’s ability to cultivate young leaders across schools and disciplines,” said Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe, director of the Office of Fellowships

Congress created the Goldwater and Truman scholarships to honor and support the nation’s outstanding undergraduate STEM researchers and public servants.

Recipients of the Truman Scholarship receive a $30,000 award toward graduate school, and the Goldwater Scholarship awards up to $7,500 to college students who intend to pursue research careers in science, math and engineering.

Nganga, a junior from Casper, Wyoming, will use the Truman award to pursue a Ph.D. in political science and public policy. Her work is focused on race and ethnicity in East Africa and America.

“I am interested in groups who have had their policy preferences ignored and the mechanisms through which marginalized groups mobilize for political change,” she said. In addition to understanding those mechanisms, Nganga believes in the importance of having critical conversations around these issues. On campus, she serves as the director of education for the Northwestern University Community for Human Rights.

Nganga plans to spend the summer in Kenya continuing the research she began as a Posner Fellow in 2015 and interweaving it with her study of American politics. She plans to comparatively analyze issues of marginalization and political mobilization.

Brunel, winner of the Goldwater Scholarship,is a junior from Austin, Texas. She is the sole undergraduate working in Professor John Torkelson’s polymer physics laboratory at Northwestern, and her work on polymer property manipulation may soon result in a first author publication.

Polymers, explains Brunel, are more commonly known as plastic — a versatile and ubiquitous material with many uses -- and have potential applications for novel drug delivery systems that could more efficaciously transport medications into the body.

“Ultimately, my goal is to improve living conditions for people around the world who struggle with inadequate or painful treatment, whether for diabetes, cancer, or other chronic diseases,” Brunel said.

Serving the common good

Nganga and Brunel first realized they could harness their academic talents for the common good while still in high school.

Brunel discovered her aptitude for bench research in high school after receiving a National Science Foundation-sponsored award to investigate coating for semiconductors at University of Texas at Austin. In addition, the summer before her senior year, Lucia began research in polymer systems, the field in which she now thrives at Northwestern.

“I’ve always been committed to improving outcomes for marginalized people, and I saw the political sphere as key to their empowerment,” said Nganga, who served as student body president of her high school, spent her free time on independent studies of topics like the Berlin Conference of 1884 and civil rights in the U.S., and engaging in service learning projects.

Empowerment through scholarship

Nganga and Brunel also both see their academic pursuits as a means by which they will one day help to empower people.

As vice president of the Northwestern University Society of Women Engineers, Brunel hopes to encourage more women to explore STEM fields.

“I hope to serve as a role model for future generations of women who want to study STEM, and particularly women considering research,” Brunel said. “I think it’s important to show other women who might be interested in engineering that this is not a field in which only men can succeed.”