For the first time in 25 years, a Rice University student has won the prestigious Churchill Scholarship.
Alex Hwang is one of 15 Americans to win the 2019 honor, which provides one year of graduate study at the University of Cambridge, based at Churchill College.
Only one or two students from 110 participating U.S. universities are nominated for the program every year.
Hwang, a Jones College senior from Palo Alto, Calif., was with his family in Hawaii when he found out he’d won. The physics and electrical engineering major had already spent part of his holiday preparing for the final phone interview with the Churchill Foundation.
Unable to find a good internet connection or a quiet space in his hotel, Hwang crouched under a desk — the most peaceful place he could find.
“Then, during my interview, the director of the Churchill Foundation, Dr. Michael Morse, actually told me almost immediately that I had won the scholarship,” Hwang said. “He also let me know that I definitely had chosen the most unique interview location — under a desk — than anybody he’s interviewed in the past.”
After the interview, Hwang immediately ran to find his family and share the good news, then began texting his friends and colleagues back at Rice.
“None of this would be possible without the tremendous support I’ve had from academic mentors in research and classroom settings,” he said.
Hwang credits many Rice faculty, staff and postdocs for helping him in his journey so far, especially physics Ph.D. student Chloe Doiron and Gururaj Naik, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. “Guru,” as Hwang and others affectionately call Naik, has served as Hwang’s research adviser for the past three years, molding him and nurturing his passion for nanophotonics.
“Through dozens of hours of working with Guru, I’ve developed into a mature young scientist, learning how to develop a solid fundamental understanding of scientific questions, tackle frequent research challenges and communicate my work clearly,” Hwang said.
Also contributing to his Churchill selection, Hwang said, were all of the internships and undergraduate research opportunities he was afforded along the way.
Last summer, Hwang participated in the Center for Energy Efficient Electronics Research Experiences for Undergraduates program at the University of California, Berkeley, gaining experience in a leading photonic device laboratory. The previous summer, he was one of three Rice students who obtained the Nakatani Research and International Experiences for Students Fellowship, which funded research at Kyoto University in Japan.
Hwang also cited Rice’s Center for Civic Leadership (CCL) for providing him with guidance and experiences that enhanced his scholarly pursuits.
“These unique experiential leadership opportunities, including co-leading an Alternative Spring Break trip, have shaped my ability to understand and engage with complex social issues,” Hwang said. “Dr. Danika Brown from the CCL provided invaluable support on my Churchill application, and Dr. Caroline Quenemoen and Dr. Michael Domeracki have also been invaluable help in past fellowship preparation.”
Hwang is a prior recipient of the Goldwater Scholarship, which recognizes promising students pursuing a research career science, technology, engineering and math. The work that went into applying for the Goldwater scholarship ended up being vital to Hwang’s Churchill success.
“One thing that really stands out for me about Alex’s application for Churchill is that because he had gone through the Goldwater process in his junior year, he was very prepared and able to articulate his passion for his project as well as his goals for studying at Cambridge so persuasively, both in writing and in his interview,” said Brown, the director of curriculum and fellowships for the CCL.
Brown added: “We feel that Alex is a model of the benefits of students working with the CCL on fellowship opportunities in order to develop the skills of communicating their experiences and future trajectories.”
For his research career, Hwang plans to continue working in nanophotonics, the study of light-matter interactions at the nanoscale.
“I’m interested in both the unique physics and exciting applications that apply to this area,” he said.
In the meantime, Hwang will pursue a master’s degree in physics at Cambridge that requires a year of research without classes or traditional coursework. And he has already applied to several U.S. Ph.D. programs in applied physics and electrical engineering that he plans to begin after he completes his year at Cambridge.
Hwang still has plenty ahead of him before graduating from Rice this May: He’ll be presenting at the SPIE Photonics West conference, the world’s largest photonics event, as well as working on his research.
“Otherwise,” he said, “you can probably find me doing two of my favorite things besides research: basketball at the Rec or hanging out with my friends.”
And, of course, there’s that big move to prepare for, which should take place around September.
“I’ve been briefly to England on a family vacation,” Hwang said. “Even though I won’t get as much sun there as I have gotten in Houston and California, I’m extremely excited.
“Cambridge was one of the original pioneers of the residential college system that inspired Rice,” Hwang said. “Through this fellowship, I will get to be part of the Churchill College community and experience some of their amazing traditions.”