WSU Undergraduates Summers, Matz, and Rocchi tapped for national Goldwater Scholarships

MEDIA: April Seehafer, WSU Distinguished Scholarships Program, 509-335-8239,

MEDIA: Mary Sanchez Lanier, Assistant Vice Provost, WSU Undergraduate Education, 509-335-8239,

PULLMAN, Wash.—The Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Program has announced that one Washington State University engineering student has been awarded its competitive national scholarship, and two science students have received honorable mentions.

As a Goldwater recipient, Ryan Matthew Summers, 21, from Stanwood, Wash., will receive up to $7,500 to support his studies at WSU in computer engineering.

Goldwater honorable mention honors went to Angela Rocchi, 21, a junior neuroscience major from Elk, Wash., and Keesha Matz, 19, a sophomore microbiology student from Chehalis, Wash.

“These young scientists have been hard at work conducting research with faculty mentors in addition to being stellar scholars,” said Mary F. Wack, WSU vice provost for undergraduate education. “They were outstanding applicants to Goldwater from WSU and we are very proud of each of them.”

April Seehafer, director of the Distinguished Scholarships Program, added, “The prestigious Goldwater awards are intended to support and enhance the education experience for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) students involved in research. All three of our WSU-endorsed applicants submitted packets detailing high levels of academic and personal achievements and strong career aspirations.”

Summers: tinkering with contraptions

Summers plans to earn a Ph.D. in computer engineering and rise through corporate ranks to be part of, and direct, lab teams that specialize in applications of parallel computing and reconfigurable logic for computational acceleration, and how parallel computing can help improve machine learning algorithms so that the algorithms can be more useful.

He’s also interested in pervasive computing. He explains that is how computers can be implemented into many parts of our lives to improve the general quality of life.

This summer, he’s headed off to Hawthorne, Calif. for an internship at SpaceX, entrepreneur Elon Musk’s aerospace manufacturer and space-transport services company that has the goal of enabling human life on Mars. Summers applied to be part of the SpaceX internship focused on embedded systems and flight software, and could work on data acquisition from sensors and lower-level programming.

At the March 2016 Showcase for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities (SURCA), he won a top prize for his poster that described his research with Zhiwu Zhang, assistant professor and scientist in crop and soils sciences and molecular plant sciences. The lab, Summers said, analyzes key genes within plant DNA.

Summers’s poster was titled, “Accelerating Computation in Genome Wide Association Studies through Parallelism on Graphics Processing Units.” It was about finding key genes that affect phenotypic (physical) response to genetic mutations. “In other words, we were using graphics cards to statistically correlate which genetic traits caused different responses, such as hair color, height, resistance to cold, and so on,” he explained.

Summers has built things since childhood. At 10, he used pieces from his Star Wars Blockade Runner set of Lego blocks to build a model, for which he won second place at the Washington State Fair. He went on to build his first computer from assorted parts. He achieved his Eagle Scout rank from the Boy Scouts of America as a teen by supplying kiosks at a new park near his home. And, for five of the past years, he has tried to perfect an autonomous lawn mower with his software-engineer dad, Kevin (’80 electrical engineering). It’s still a work in progress.

“It’s a fact: I love to tinker around and build robots and other contraptions,” said Summers, president of the Robosub Club of the Palouse, team lead in the Robotics Club, and an organizer of the WSU Hardware Hackathon.

He came to WSU from Everett Community College, intending to major in electrical engineering before realizing his interests were more in computer engineering and designing embedded systems. He received funding from the German Academic Exchange Service (Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst, or DAAD) to work for a summer at the Hoshschule Zittau/Görlitz (University of Applied Sciences in Zittau/Görlitz), near the border with Poland. He was tasked with using parallel machine-learning algorithms to solve flexible job-shop scheduling problems. With additional funding from the WSU Honors College, of which he is a member, he presented findings from his German research at a November 2015 conference at the University of Science and Technology of China, 300 km west of Shanghai.

His Goldwater scholarship will allow him to cut back on time spent at work, to focus more on his research and scholarly pursuits, including the study of German. “It will help prepare me to be an international researcher.”

Matz: many milestones this year

Keesha Matz is completing her sophomore year as a WSU Regents Scholar, member of the Honors College, and a microbiology major. She is still resolved to pursue a Ph.D. in virology and become a lead research scientist studying emerging viruses, reinforced by having achieved four milestones this academic year related to her undergraduate research.

She came to WSU partially because of its Students Targeted toward Advanced Research Studies (STARS) program in the School of Molecular Biosciences (SMB), which provides a fast-track from undergraduate to doctoral studies and training for select students. Matz spent her first of three research rotations with Professor Hector Aguilar-Carreno in the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health. They study the killer Nipah virus, looking at the interactions of three proteins that affect how it spreads by replicating and exiting a host cell.

Her first milestone came thanks to the encouragement of her professors, when she made an oral presentation on her work titled, “Roles of Nipah Virus Attachment, Fusion, and Matrix Proteins on Viral Assembly and Budding.” For her effort, she received an outstanding presenter award at that national Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS), sponsored by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences.

ABRCMS gave her confidence, she said, so she presented the same research to judges and the public at SURCA in March, and won a special award from the WSU Emeritus Society in its biosciences category. In winter, though, she tackled the challenge of applying for the very competitive Goldwater award—the most recent milestone.

“I learned a lot about myself throughout the process, which is pretty comprehensive,” said Matz. “I feel I grew from writing a compact, two-page abstract about my research that people outside of my field could understand. And, it was amazing to put information about myself down on paper. I really appreciate the support from my mentors at WSU as well as my parents, Anne and Dale.

“I received an honorable mention from Goldwater, so now I am asking myself, ‘What can I apply for next?’ I am grateful for every opportunity that’s available.”

Perhaps the answer will spring from her next STARS rotations. She recently researched Borrelia bacteria that cause Lyme disease with Troy Bankhead, associate professor in veterinary microbiology and pathology. His lab specializes in studying the mechanisms of persistence and pathogenesis exhibited by the species.

This summer, she is presenting her work at ASM Microbe, an international gathering hosted in Boston by the American Society for Microbiology. She will also complete her third and final STARS rotation with Alan Goodman, SMB assistant professor, studying innate immune responses, “another side of viral infections.”

Rocchi: future physician and researcher

Rocchi’s career goal is to become a medical doctor and research scientist by obtaining an M.D./Ph.D. in neuroscience and conducting research on cognitive disorders to increase scientific understanding and develop clinical solutions.

“Our limited understanding of the brain results in even more limited treatment options for patients,” she said. “Surgical procedures are risky while pharmaceuticals, if available, offer only symptomatic relief. Because of this, many who suffer neurological diseases leave the clinic with little more than a predicted life span and no conclusive explanation for their disorder. I believe this needs to change.”

A neuroscience major in the WSU Honors College, she is pursuing minors in mathematics, biology, chemistry, and microbiology. She came to WSU as a Distinguished Regents Scholar, and has participated in scientific research since her freshman year. Now a junior, her main focus has been on Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. This past year, she has worked independently under the direction of her mentor, Joseph W. Harding, professor in integrative physiology and neuroscience, investigating the potential for the drug Dihexa to be used for the treatment of congestive heart failure. Harding’s lab develops peptide- and peptidomimetic-pharmaceuticals for the treatment of dementia, cancer, and deficits in wound healing.

Her research has led to many awards. Her presentation on preliminary data from her research earned her first place at the inaugural “Three-Minute Research Competition” hosted by the Honors College in fall 2015. She received an honorable mention in the molecular, cellular, and chemical biology category of SURCA for her poster presentation titled, “Chronic Dihexa Treatment of Normal Rats Creates Potential Treatment for Heart Failure.” She will also present the poster at the National Collegiate Honors Council in fall.

Rocchi received Honors scholarships to work for two summers at the University of Cambridge in the lab of Professor Sarah Lummis, conducting biochemical characterization of cys-loop ligand gated ion channels. That work resulted in an article published in December 2015 in the journal of Biological Chemistry, titled, “Perturbation of Critical Prolines in Gloeobacter violaceus Ligand-Gated Ion Channel (GLIC) Supports Conserved Gating Motions Among Cys-Loop Receptors.”

Rocchi will spend this summer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science on a project for its “End Alzheimer’s” movement. The Seattle-based, independent and nonprofit medical research organization is dedicated to accelerating the understanding of how the human brain works. It began in 2003 with $100 million in seed money from WSU alumnus Paul Allen, Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist.

Beyond science, she is proud to have recently earned a grant for her American Council of Exercise certification, which extends her group fitness instructor credentials to the national level. She is expert at teaching variations of yoga, weight lifting, and spin classes.