Two friends, science majors earn national award for showing promise as research leaders
Jillian Riveros ’22 and Ishaan Madan ’22 are good friends who have a lot in common. The two are both Posse Scholars, first-generation college students and highly-driven campus leaders. Now, they both have the honor of being winners of prestigious 2021 Barry Goldwater Scholarships.
The scholarship, named in recognition of Senator Barry Goldwater, is a national award in the natural sciences, engineering and mathematics that seeks to identify and support sophomores and juniors who show exceptional promise in becoming research leaders in these fields, according to the award website.
Nationwide, 408 were selected last spring to receive the honor from a total of 1,256 natural science, engineering and mathematics students who were nominated to compete by 438 academic institutions. The scholarship contributes to the cost of tuition, books, fees and room and board.
Riveros, a biochemistry major, is co-founder and president of the Ohm Initiative at Wheaton, which is a theme residence that strives for a more inclusive community within the STEM field, and specifically as it relates to individuals with marginalized or underrepresented identities. She plans to pursue a career as a physician scientist specializing in pediatric cardiology and conducting research in cardiovascular medicine.
“I feel very inspired. As a woman of color who is first-gen and has no one in her family who has taken on careers in the STEM field, it can be very challenging navigating through it,” Riveros said. “Winning this award has given me reassurance and motivation to keep going. It has shown me that I can do great things and that not only do I see myself as good enough, but so do others in academia.”
Madan, a biochemistry major, said he plans to pursue a Ph.D. in organic chemistry and conduct research in astrobiology with the goal of collaborating on space exploration missions for ocean world environments to understand the emergence of precursors of life.
“Receiving the Goldwater scholarship is a stepping stone that will allow me to foster connections with other young and early career scientists,” said Madan, who is co-president of the First-Gen Theme House and president of the Pre-Health Society.
High praise from professors
Riveros and Madan point to professors and staff members as supportive mentors, and their professors speak highly of them.
Riveros is a Wheaton Inclusive STEM Excellence Scholar (WISE) and was a teaching assistant in Professor of Chemistry Jani Benoit’s introductory chemistry course.
“Jillian is a brilliant scholar and a remarkable leader on campus,” Benoit said. “She is deeply committed to supporting underrepresented students in STEM through her work as president of the Ohm Initiative. The WISE initiative recently hired her to work out of the Marshall Center developing activities to engage first-generation students and students of color with the goals of building strong relationships among STEM students and sharing information about resources on and off campus.”
“Jillian received this honor because of her outstanding potential for scientific research,” Benoit said. “Students who receive Goldwater Scholarships have excellent track records for also receiving post-graduate scholarships. I can’t say enough great things about Jillian.”
Professor of Geology Geoffrey Collins, who is a mentor to Madan, said he is impressed with Madan’s focus, initiative and entrepreneurial spirit in creating opportunities for himself.
“Ishaan has strong interdisciplinary interests across the sciences, doing work in chemistry, biology, physics and astronomy. He has become well-versed in several disparate fields,” Collins said. “For instance, as a sophomore in my astrobiology seminar, he could easily lead a class discussion on topics as divergent as supernovae and protein synthesis. In fact, it was during that astrobiology seminar that Ishaan and I forged our working relationship together. I had my eye on him after he wrote an impressively professional scientific literature review paper about the polymerization of prebiotic compounds.”
Perseverance and persistence
Both students noted that they have overcome many challenges on the road to their accomplishments.
“I have dyslexia, ADHD and other cognitive learning disabilities,” Riveros said. “Since I couldn’t learn as quickly as others, I didn’t feel as if I belonged in STEM or academia in general. If there was more representation, I might not have doubted myself so much. I want other scholars to know that they can do it, too, and not hide from a part of their identity because it can only make them stronger and better.”
Riveros’s long-held interest in medicine stems from childhood.
“Growing up with a prenatal heart condition known as pulmonary stenosis, I was raised as a frequent visitor in hospitals to the point where my providers were considered close friends,” she said. “Ever since, I longed to see other children trust and develop a close connection with their physicians, especially those from marginalized communities. That is what drives me to be a pediatric cardiologist, and it also motivates me to conduct clinical research on cardiovascular diseases and medicines.”
Madan also has known that he wanted to be a scientist since childhood; at age 9 he told his mom that he wanted to grow to work for NASA. He has worked hard every day for every successful step in that direction. The scholarship is one more leap.
“Honestly, it is still pretty surreal. It really validates my journey, my passion for science, the sacrifices my family has made for me, and my determination to persevere no matter what,” he said.
“It is also an honor to accept this award as a Wheaton student and alongside one of my best friends,” he said. “I have never had the privilege of having connections in my field of choice that would help me look for internships, scholarships and other opportunities. I always had to work for what I wanted—something I learned from my mom, dad and my sister—and constantly hold myself up in the face of any adversity that came my way.”
An important network
At Wheaton, the connections Riveros and Madan have made have been invaluable, they said.
“My support group, specifically from the faculty side, is incredible,” Riveros said. “Professor [Chris] Kalberg, Professor [Jani] Benoit and Professor [William] Bloch specifically were really a blessing to have throughout this journey. Wheaton’s small campus really helps students get connected with faculty members and these connections allow them to do things they never imagined they could.”
In 2020, when the pandemic was in full force, Madan didn’t have an internship opportunity lined up and had to create one. He reached out to Professor Collins for help to develop an independent project.
“We reached out to some of my colleagues at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab for ideas,” Collins said. “I was really impressed by how motivated and focused Ishaan was, once he had a research goal to achieve. Ishaan did a literature review and calculated the breakdown rates [for his project] from his family’s apartment in New York City, and by the end of the summer, he had a result good enough to earn him a talk at the fall 2020 American Geophysical Union meeting. He gave a great presentation and actively contributed to the session discussion alongside senior graduate students and mid-career scientists.”
Madan got his research funded through the Posse Summer Leadership Award. The work was a fundamental part of his Goldwater application, he said.
“Being recognized as a scientist for the presentation of that work really grounds and humbles me,” Madan said. “Wheaton has always provided me with the resources to succeed in my academic and professional career. I have had the chance to not only do research with professors, but also develop strong bonds with my peers and mentors that will stick with me even after college.”
(Photos by Keith Nordstrom)