Bold move put Mason’s Goldwater Scholar on the right path

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Peter Pachowicz said he knew nothing about George Mason University student Lina Alkarmi when he received Alkarmi’s resume and request to talk about research opportunities.

portrait of Lina Alkarmi
Goldwater Scholar Lina Alkarmi. Photo by Cristian Torres/Creative Services

But Pachowicz, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering in Mason’s College of Engineering and Computing, said it took only a short conversation to know Alkarmi, who had recently changed her major to electrical engineering, would be a valuable partner.

“At my age you can identify people quite easily who are ambitious and who will excel in the future,” Pachowicz said. “So a short discussion and I already knew she was the right person.”

Pachowicz isn’t the only one who sees Alkarmi’s potential, as the junior from Sterling, Virginia, and a member of Mason's Honors College, has received a prestigious Goldwater Scholarship, which is available to sophomores and juniors pursuing careers in the engineering, mathematics, and the natural sciences.

The award of $7,500 per academic year can be used for tuition, mandatory fees, books, and room and board. It is also a gateway for students applying to graduate schools and searching for research funding. Goldwater scholars also have access to previous winners, who serve as mentors.

“Oh, I didn’t really believe it,” Alkarmi, Mason’s 12th Goldwater Scholar, said of the award. “It was something I was hoping for, but not expecting.”

The scholarship’s application process is extensive, and of the 1,267 students nominated in this cycle, only 413 received funding.

In addition to academic transcripts, students must list all research experience and write two essays, one describing their career goals and another on an activity that has been important in shaping their desire to pursue a research career. Students must also submit three letters of recommendation from faculty.

Alkarmi credited Mason’s Goldwater Committee—Karen Lee, assistant director of the Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities, and Research (OSCAR); Jan Allbeck, associate dean of the Honors College; and Joshua Davis, assistant professor of conservation biology—with helping craft her application.

“I actually worked with them a lot,” Alkarmi said. “They reviewed my essays probably five times and revised my applications. They even read my letters of recommendation to make sure they were good, so they were really helpful.”

Alkarmi didn’t start as an electrical engineering major, though electrical engineering is also her father’s profession. But after taking several math and physics classes, she wanted more. Besides, Alkarmi said, “electrical engineering explains so many things about how everything works, how the world works. You really go deep into everything and understand why, instead of just knowing, well, this exists but you don’t know why it works.”

Alkarmi’s work with Pachowicz centers around using lasers for optical calibration of ground telescopes. The plan is to build a satellite with two payloads having four lasers each. Once in orbit they will be a reference point for telescopes exploring exoplanets and engaged in other cosmology research.

“So instead of using a star [to calibrate a telescope], you can make your own star,” Alkarmi said. “That’s what the laser is, it’s a fake star that you know where it is and you can control the light coming out of it, so the calculations are a lot better.”

Pachowicz said he is waiting to hear if the project, which aligns with Mason’s mission to contribute bold initiatives to push research forward, will get funding from NASA.

Alkarmi’s job is to help fashion the laser controller, a challenging task, Pachowicz said, because of the thermal and radiation issues in space for which she must account.

For Alkarmi, it’s another step toward her ultimate goal of earning a PhD and teaching in higher ed.

“Lina embodies what it means to be a Goldwater scholar,” said Megan Bruening, Mason’s director of fellowships. “Her exceptional academic record and passion for pursuing research made her stand out among the hundreds of applicants that apply for the Goldwater every year.”

Said Pachowicz: “I would love to have many more like her.”