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UW-Madison student wins Churchill Scholarship

February 11, 2010 By Susannah Brooks

A student who has engaged in chemistry and mathematics research on campus since high school is the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s third Churchill Scholar — and the first in 30 years.

Daniel Lecoanet, originally from Madison, is one of only 14 Churchill Scholars from across the country, including five from public institutions. He will spend the 2010-11 academic year at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, taking part in a renowned mathematical program that has produced great thinkers such as Sir Isaac Newton and William Thomson, Lord Kelvin.

“Daniel has great mathematical skills, physical insight and an innate ability to pick out the important questions and make progress even on very difficult problems,” says Ellen Zweibel, William L. Kraushaar Professor of Astronomy and Physics, who has worked with Lecoanet since his freshman year. “He has been a joy to work with and to know; he will be a wonderful representative of us abroad.”

Lecoanet, currently pursuing double majors with honors in physics and mathematics, has applied to doctoral programs and will defer a year while at Cambridge. With an eye toward a professorship at a research university, he plans to complete his graduate studies in plasma physics or plasma astrophysics.

“Madison gives you a good bang for your buck,” says Lecoanet. “Our plasma physics program is routinely rated second or third in the country, though I didn’t know until after I had started studying plasma physics here.”

Growing up in Madison, Leocanet began taking courses at UW–Madison while still in high school, completing half of the undergraduate physics curriculum before beginning his undergraduate career. In addition to his work in physics and mathematics, he has also conducted research in chemistry. A Goldwater Scholar as a sophomore, he has also won research funding from the National Science Foundation and the United States Departments of Education and Energy. In addition, he has spent three years as a peer mentor tutor in physics, receiving top ratings from fellow undergraduates.

Since 1963, the Winston Churchill Foundation of the United States has awarded more than 430 Churchill Scholarships to American college graduates who have demonstrated extraordinary talent and outstanding achievement in the sciences, engineering, or mathematics. The award is worth up to $50,000 and covers all tuition and fees, a living allowance and travel.

The last Badger to receive a Churchill Scholarship was David Goodrich, an engineer who studied at Cambridge in 1980-81. Lecoanet’s award continues a resurgence in national recognition for UW–Madison students, thanks in no small part to the Office of Undergraduate Academic Awards and its director, Julie Stubbs.

“I’m confident we won’t have to wait another 30 years for our next Churchill Scholar,” says Stubbs. “I hope Daniel’s success will inspire other talented UW students to apply.”