Los Alamos High School alum receives prestigious scholarship

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Apr. 7—When Aaron Philips first opened his laptop to apply for the Barry Goldwater Scholarship in September, the Los Alamos native and Michigan State University student was admittedly overwhelmed by what he saw.

"I remember when I started writing my application, and I looked at the 20 pages that I would have to write and I basically closed my laptop. I was like, 'I've got no shot at this. I'm not qualified for this,'" he said.

Established by Congress in 1986 and named after former U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, The Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation provides scholarships to U.S. college freshmen and sophomores who are pursuing research careers in mathematics, natural sciences and engineering. Since its founding, it has provided scholarships to thousands of students. The scholarship provides $7,500 per year in funding for undergraduate tuition and living expenses.

In Michigan State's 169-year history, the school has produced 53 Goldwater scholars prior to the 2024 scholarship cycle. When Philips visited the school prior to his freshman year, a couple of the students giving him the tour were Goldwater Scholars, which inspired Philips to apply for the scholarship.

"(Applying for the scholarship) is something I've been looking forward to and hoping I'd be able to achieve myself," he said.

Entering his second year at Michigan State, Philips was studying physics and advanced mathematics in the College of Natural Science and was a member of the Honors College. He had also taken part in numerous, diverse research projects during his time as a professional assistant at Michigan State's Facility for Rare Isotope Beams and as a Discovering America researcher with the university's Mathematics Department's foreign exchange program.

All of this experience would come in handy when it came time for Philips to begin filling out the scholarship application, which asked him to describe his coursework, the type of research he was conducting and how it had contributed to the scientific community.

The university's Facility for Rare Isotope Beams is located across the street from where he lives and is where he does most of his research on the nuclear landscape through advanced mathematics and artificial intelligence.

"What I've been working on at Michigan State University has been using machine learning in order to try and mimic the first principle of quantum codes with a calculation, but try to do (the calculation) much faster," Philips said. "You trade off just a little bit of accuracy for a huge increase in speed."

Utilizing his past experience in research and as a student, Philips spent the next four months filling out the scholarship application, piece by piece. Finally, in January, he finished and submitted it.

Then came the waiting game.

"I was prepared for both the rejection and acceptance," he said.

The answer came at the end of March, when Philips learned he and fellow Michigan State student Libby Ashby had been selected to receive the scholarship.

Philips said he felt a wave of relief and gratitude upon hearing the news and reflected on those who helped guide him to this moment.

The son of a mathematician and an employee at Los Alamos National Laboratory, he credits his parents for setting a good example early for scientific discovery. "I think having both parents working at a lab that really values good science definitely pushed me towards (the science field)."

Now, Philips is looking to help the next generation of mathematicians and scientists as a tutor through the Michigan State University Mathematics Learning Center and at East Lansing High School. He feels he is able to show others that they posses the ability to understand science on a deep level and find their place in it.

"I encourage people to not be intimidated by things like math and physics," he said. "Being a good scientist isn't just about having some natural talent for it. It's a lot of hard work, rigor and honesty. Reach out to scientists in their area of interest and get some experience."