Three WSU STEM undergraduates receive national Goldwater awards

Gubsch and Walden adjusting a drone.
Kristian Gubsch and Von Walden make technical adjustments to a drone.

Two engineering and one science student at Washington State University have received prestigious, nationally competitive awards from the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Program.

The students are seniors Courtney Klappenbach, a genetics and cellular biology and microbiology double major, and Kristian Gubsch, a chemical engineering major; and, junior Daniel Goto, the only student at WSU with a double major in electrical engineering and materials science engineering.

Faced a strong field

“Our newest Goldwater Scholars submitted impressive applications for the award, and overcame tough competition from top students across the nation,” said April Seehafer, director of the Distinguished Scholarships Program, part of WSU Undergraduate Education. Seehafer and select faculty members mentor students seeking the elite awards.

This year’s national Goldwater pool included more than 1,200 students nominated by 443 academic institutions for the 2019-20 awards. Klappenbach is among 360 recipients with natural science majors, while Gubsch and Goto are among 74 awardees from engineering.

The three bring the total number of Goldwater recipients at WSU since the first in 1990—four years after the award was established by the U.S. Congress to 41. Considered the premier undergraduate award given to junior and senior natural science, engineering, and mathematics students, the Goldwater award pays $7,500 per year per recipient to cover educational costs such as tuition and fees. The purpose of the Goldwater awards, according to the website of its federally funded foundation, is to ensure that the U.S. “has the scientific talent it needs to maintain its global competitiveness and security.”

“All of our new Goldwater Scholars are deeply involved in undergraduate research and creative projects, which adds to their competitiveness for top awards at the national level,” said Mary Sánchez Lanier, assistant vice provost and WSU’s faculty liaison to the Goldwater program. “They are all advancing knowledge in their fields and sharing their work publicly. They are campus leaders, and they envision careers that will have make a difference in their communities, our nation, and the world.”

Goto: Innovator, retired hacker, and leader

Headshot of Daniel Goto
Daniel Goto

Daniel Goto was raised in Sammamish, and graduated from Redmond’s magnet Nikola Tesla STEM High School. He could have followed family tradition and attended college in Michigan. But Midwest schools were never on his radar. WSU was his top choice; he liked its reputation for involving undergraduates in research, the Honors College, and the much-appreciated scholarship offers it extended to him.

“I know first-hand that WSU is really, a really good school,” he said. “I learn a lot in classrooms, but the ability to apply it provides unique experiences.

“I have access to tremendous opportunities to do engineering that has impact,” he added. I can do all kinds of research, I can invent things, and I can inspire others to be interested in science. WSU has everything I want.”

Some unique opportunities, he said, arise from classes. For example, when an Honors assignment required information about autism, his curiosity kicked in, and he followed some leads and made phone connections with autistic trailblazer, author, and animal science professor Temple Grandin. She visited for an hour with him and provided enough information that he was able to list her as a primary resource on his project.

Goto’s entrepreneurial spirit has also sparked unique opportunities beyond classes. He has led multiple first-place teams in hackathons—short-duration, topical competitions that involve the use of technology. His most recent was the 2019 national Hack Washington event in January at Seattle’s Space Needle. His interdisciplinary team developed a bracelet plus software that could be used by a person who is deaf to communicate with and through Amazon’s digital personal assistant product, Alexa. In addition to winning the competition, Goto and his team took the top Microsoft prize for utilizing the company’s software in their project, and a special Amazon prize for hacking its theretofore-thought-unhackable Echo smart speaker.

“I’m a retired hacker,” said Goto. “I’ve won enough. That was my last hackathon- at least for now.”

He has participated in a variety of research projects. As a WSU freshman, he was mentored by Arda Gozen, Berry professor in the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture (VCEA), on a project involving advanced manufacturing methods using 3D printing. Chosen for an NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates on nanorobots, he spent the summer of 2017 at the University of Louisville designing and fabricating an electrostatic rotary actuator. He presented his results at poster events, including that year’s National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure conference. In summer 2018, he worked with Professor Lei, Wei at Southeast University in Nanjing, China, on nanomaterial synthesis of quantum dots, a project that allowed him to interface with research colleagues in Great Britain and South Africa. Goto most recently worked with former VCEA Assistant Professor Lei Li to develop hardware and software systems used in technologies for 3D printable composites for next-generation manufacturing.

“Receiving the Goldwater award gives me financial freedom so I can focus on my education, plus it’s validation to me that my WSU education is top notch,” said Goto. “The Goldwater will help pay for tuition and expenses for two years, and I think it will look pretty good on my resume and help open doors to graduate school.”

Just a junior, he has a few more years until graduation, and a few more opportunities to seek before earning a doctorate and getting industry experience in product engineering to design the next generation of computer chips. His latest passion has involved pulling together a team of WSU students to build and test a 250-pound combat robot. He can’t discuss details (but he’s in negotiations for a television appearance in spring).

Daniel is the oldest child of Dean and Cherie Goto, of Sammamish; sister Christina is a University of Michigan sophomore in biomedical engineering; and, sister Catherine is a senior at Eastlake High.

Gubsch: Metabolome, Hollings, and Charleston

The Goldwater is Gubsch’s second distinguished scholarship, and he plans to seek more. In 2018, he successfully applied for an Ernest F. Hollings Undergraduate Scholarship from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) worth $19,000 over two years. He’s the first at WSU to win a Hollings. As part of that award, he is working this summer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Charleston, S. C., and living with other interns on nearby James Island.

He is part of the marine biochemical sciences lab of NIST researcher Tracey Schock. Schock’s efforts focus on the cyclic relationship between oceans and humans. Gubsch’s project is to investigate how the metabolome in coral changes as the result of ocean acidification.

“I’ve had really meaningful research experiences in my undergraduate years,” said Gubsch, crediting WSU for providing, and preparing him for, great opportunities. “The summer after my freshman year, I worked with VCEA Professor Von Walden to research air quality in Spokane. I helped develop a network of Raspberry Pi air-quality sensors. The next year, I worked with VCEA Associate Professor Hongfei Lin and learned about carbon capture and converting carbon dioxide to calcium formate. Now, at NIST, I’m researching how climate change is impacting our oceans.

“All of my research projects have been equally enjoyable, plus I gain new skillsets with each one. And, I get paid to do all that!”

In the coming academic year, Gubsch will be president of a student club associated with the Harold Frank Engineering Entrepreneurship Institute for select WSU engineering, business, and communications students interested in technological entrepreneurship. He and his team are developing a “meditation orb” with an app to collect individuals’ biofeedback data with measurements including heart and respiration rates and muscle tension. Members had the opportunity to speak with venture capitalists, CEOs, and business leaders in California’s Silicon Valley.

In spring 2019, Gubsch was among 55 students who received a WSU President’s Award for Leadership. With that, he was able to apply and interview for, and became the sole recipient of, the Virginia E. Thomas Endowed Scholarship. It honors those with a “legacy of excellence, integrity, character, discovery, and service.”

“I deeply appreciate the scholarships and awards that have helped to fund my education and given me so many professional and personal experiences,” Gubsch said.

“I’ve found that the process of applying for awards is hard but, in the end, rewarding. I’ve had to work really hard to identify my goals, aspirations, and career plans. And, it’s always a challenge to present myself well.

“I’ve increased my networks across nations, and I’m in touch with highly motivated and successful people in many fields. They want to help you reach your goals.”

One of those goals, Gubsch said, is to apply for a few more distinguished scholarships to further his education. The future doctoral graduate in chemical engineering aims for a career developing technologies to limit the effect of climate change on the environment.

An Honors College student, he is the son of Derek and Deborah Reece, and brother to Evan, all of Edgewood, Wash.

Klappenbach: Campylobacter jejuni, STARS, and family

Klappenbach was accepted to every university to which she applied, but she chose WSU because of its reputation for research and opportunities to involve undergraduates in it. She came prepared.

“My passion for science goes back as long as I can remember,” she said, remembering that her parents gave her a light microscope for her thirteenth birthday. “I designed experiments for myself to test questions like, ‘Which types of food in my house would be made up of cells?’ and ‘How long will blood cells keep moving after I put them on a slide?’ and I wrote detailed reports on my findings, including procedures and drawings.”

“I told everyone I was going to be scientist someday.” By age 17, though, she realized she didn’t know how to turn interests into a career. Her science teacher and mentor at Clarkston High, Don Dotson, explained how the field of professional scientific research worked, and suggested that her curiosity, drive, and passion would fit well with that career path.

“As soon as I stepped on the WSU campus, I looked for that first research opportunity- I met with mentors and emailed professors about joining their labs,” she said

She soon had a position with genomics-reproduction expert Chengtao Her, associate professor in the School of Molecular Biosciences (SMB). His lab works to understand the role and molecular mechanisms of mammalian DNA mismatch repair pathways, with investigations into the role of these genes in human cancer and other biological processes. Klappenbach’s independent project was to determine the substrate preference of the human mismatch repair protein msh2.

In her first spring at WSU, she applied to join SMB’s Students Targeted toward Advanced Research Studies (STARS) program, a “fast-track BS-to-Ph.D.” program for exceptional life science students. Out of 35 STARS students over more than a decade, she is just the second ever to be admitted as a freshman.

Klappenbach’s interests next took her to the laboratory of Mike Konkel, professor and SMB senior associate director. She studies the mechanisms that foodborne pathogenic Campylobacter jejuni bacteria use to colonize, invade, and inflame the human intestinal tract, causing gastroenteritis. Her work on how the bacteria manipulate host intestinal cell structures, called focal adhesions, has yielded results that will be submitted—with her as first author—for publication. She delivered an oral presentation on her results at the Conference for Research Workers in Animal Disease, and used much of the same information for her Honors College thesis—which she passed “with distinction” a year earlier than required.

Along the way, she has learned something of benefit to every scientist: How to explain her work to non-scientific audiences, like her nine-year-old sister.

She tells her, “I study germs. I paint them different colors and look at them under a microscope. I read lots of stories, called scientific papers, written by others who are studying germs- And, I do a lot of puzzles.”

When she puts all of her research information together, like pieces of a puzzle, sometimes the pieces fit but sometimes they don’t. That’s why, she said, she spends 20 to 30 hours each week in the lab on top of classes; in summers, the total goes higher. Her hard work has paid off.

“Receiving the Goldwater is big and exciting,” said Klappenbach. “I appreciate it as an honor and I give thanks for everyone who has helped me along the way to become a scientist and worthy applicant.”

She is the daughter of Adam Klappenbach and Cheryl McDowell, of Clarkston; and Cari and Brandon Thompson, of Kentucky. Through STARS, she will become a graduate student in the Konkel lab in July 2020, pursuing a Ph.D. in cellular microbiology, with plans to become a cellular microbiologist and researcher at a university or in industry.

For more information on awards such as the Goldwater, visit

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