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Virginia Tech News / Articles / 2006 / 04 

Student from College of Science wins Goldwater Scholarship

April 17, 2006

About midway through his first year at Virginia Tech, University Honors student Brian Skinner had earned enough credits to be classified as a junior.

And while most freshmen spent their first winter break catching up on much needed R and R, Skinner was busy writing code for a project on the physics of traffic he had embarked on with Beate Schmittmann, a professor of physics in the College of Science at Virginia Tech.

“Brian brims with ideas and is not afraid to throw himself into a project,” Schmittmann said. “He is highly motivated, very bright, and truly independent in his thinking.”

Skinner’s time and talents have paid off in a big way, as he has been awarded a highly competitive Barry M. Goldwater scholarship for the 2006-2007 academic year. He is among 323 Goldwater scholars chosen this year from an applicant field of 1,081 undergraduates nationwide in engineering, science, and mathematics.

Goldwater scholars are selected for academic merit and each is awarded up to $7,500 per year for tuition, fees, books, and room and board. Congress established the scholarship program in 1986 to honor the late Sen. Goldwater and to encourage outstanding students to pursue careers in mathematics, the natural sciences, or engineering.

Skinner is the son of Kristian and Carolina Skinner of St. Anthony, Idaho. He is double majoring in physics and mechanical engineering and plans to pursue a Ph.D. in theoretical physics and eventually conduct research and teach on the university level.

Skinner has been involved in several physics-related research projects. Last summer, he was a member of the MIT Quantum Computing Group, a small team of graduate and undergraduate students whose work included mathematical modeling, programming, and use of an NMR spectrometer. At Virginia Tech, Skinner has worked with professors Schmittmann and Royce Zia to create and analyze computer models for the dynamics of pedestrian traffic and parasite-host interactions.

“The more I am exposed to different fields of scientific research, the more I am motivated to pursue a research career,” Skinner said. “Scientific research is so fascinating because it is a process of perpetual revolution, whereby we recognize the limits of our own understanding and challenge the assumptions we have made about the universe around us.”

Skinner has also worked as a research assistant with Bruce Vogelaar, associate professor of physics, in experimental particle physics. As part of Vogelaar’s research team, Skinner helped develop diamond-like coatings made with a Class IV excimer laser to transport ultra-cold neutrons. These coatings are a critical part of the team’s research that is being conducted at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

“There is no doubt Brian will prove to be a scientist of note as he progresses in his career,” Vogelaar said. “His resume already speaks to his broader understanding of the world at large and its intrinsic challenges and a scientist’s social responsibilities.

Skinner has won departmental scholarships in physics as well as scholarships in the College of Science and College of Engineering, a National Merit Scholarship, and a Presidential Campus Enrichment Grant. He is also an active tutor in high school physics and mathematics.

Skinner is Virginia Tech’s 33rd Goldwater scholar since the program began in 1986.

The College of Science at Virginia Tech gives students a comprehensive foundation in the scientific method. Outstanding faculty members teach courses and conduct research in biology, chemistry, economics, geosciences, mathematics, physics, psychology, and statistics. The college is dedicated to fostering a research intensive environment and offers programs in many cutting edge areas, including those in nanotechnology, biological sciences, information theory and science, and supports the university’s research initiatives through the Institute for Critical Technologies and Applied Sciences, and the Institute for Biomedical and Public Health Sciences. The college of Science also houses programs in pre-medicine and intellectual properties law.