Penn State senior wins prestigious Churchill Scholarship

Penn State senior Ramya Gurunathan has been selected to receive a prestigious Churchill Scholarship, a highly sought-after program that allows American college students to pursue graduate studies in engineering, mathematics or the sciences at the University of Cambridge. Gurunathan is only the second Penn State student to win the Churchill Scholarship since its inception in 1963.

“Ramya is a truly outstanding student, who has taken full advantage of every opportunity available to her at Penn State. We’re proud that she is being honored with a prestigious award that will allow her to live, learn and grow at Cambridge University," said Penn State President Eric Barron. "I know she will go on to do great things in this world.”

The senior from Yardley, Pennsylvania, will graduate in May with a degree in materials science and engineering and nanotechnology from the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. She also is a member of Penn State’s top-ranked Schreyer Honors College.

“I was really stunned and, needless to say, excited," Gurunathan said. "Applications to the Churchill Scholarship are reviewed by previous recipients who are now premier scientists. It is gratifying to have received this sort of endorsement of my undergraduate work from leaders in STEM.”

The Churchill Foundation’s scholarship program offers U.S. students of exceptional ability and proven talent in research the opportunity to pursue a full-year master’s program.

"The Churchill Scholarship is one of the most prestigious fellowships in the world, with only 15 awarded each year," said Tanya Furman, interim director of the University Fellowships Office at Penn State. 

“Ramya is a truly outstanding student, who has taken full advantage of every opportunity available to her at Penn State. We’re proud that she is being honored with a prestigious award that will allow her to live, learn and grow at Cambridge University."

-- Penn State President Eric Barron

Among the scholars who have participated in the program, eight have gone on to win the Nobel Prize. Danielle Bassett, the first Penn State student to be awarded the Churchill Scholarship in 2004, was recently named a MacArthur Fellow, the award widely known as the “genius grant.”

Gurunathan started her Penn State research with Suzanne Mohney, professor of materials science and engineering, after taking a course in materials characterization, which led to an independent project studying new solar cell materials. In her research, Gurunathan investigates materials that absorb sunlight more efficiently than silicon, the standard solar cell material used today. Her goal is to make solar cell technology efficient and also affordable in order to achieve energy security.

Beyond her outstanding academic achievements, Gurunathan has a talent for communicating her research to diverse audiences.

“Ramya excels at both computational and experimental research … and at communicating complicated scientific information in a clear way,” said Mohney.

“I want to be a part of a new age of scientists who are civically and culturally engaged. I want to be able to excite and invite general audiences to explore modern science by communicating my own research in a palatable and accessible way.”

-- Ramya Gurunathan, Penn State senior and Churchill Scholar

“In a world where tension exists between the desire to innovate and the fear of the social changes that follow new technologies, it is critical that we have engineers such as Ms. Gurunathan with the artistic and communication savvy to bridge this divide,” said Ruth Mendum, former director of the University Fellowships Office.

Gurunathan attributes the development of her communication skills to the opportunities presented to her at the University.

“Penn State has offered me numerous sources of support, allowing me to achieve more than I could have expected when I first walked onto campus,” she said. 

“The faculty and staff at Penn State’s materials science department treated me like a peer and gave me the chance to work as a teaching assistant and research assistant. The University Fellowships Office not only exposed me to incredible post-graduate opportunities, but also taught me how to communicate my research experience and research goals in writing and in interviews. Finally, the Schreyer Honors College and Presidential Leadership Academy gave me support to travel to places like Japan, Iceland, Puerto Rico, and the Netherlands, where I developed leadership and research skills.”

Gurunathan’s travel and research experience includes summer internships at the SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Albany, New York, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California. She also participated in NanoJapan: International Research Experience for Undergraduates at Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan, and most recently attended the EuroScholars: Research Abroad Program at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

She is also an active member, and holds leadership positions, in numerous Penn State and community organizations, including: PSU Natya, Penn State’s classical Indian dance team; Schreyer Honors College Scholar Assistant Team; Penn State’s Engineers Without Borders; Materials Science Student Society; and the Discovery Space Museum volunteer program. In addition, Gurunathan is an Evan Pugh Scholar representing the upper 0.5 percent of her class.

Gurunathan will be applying the Churchill Scholarship toward a master of philosophy degree in scientific computing, which will help to further her career goals in computational materials science research. Her dream is to work at a Department of Energy lab or at NIST, The National Institute of Standards in Technology.

“I want to be a part of a new age of scientists who are civically and culturally engaged," said Gurunathan. "I want to be able to excite and invite general audiences to explore modern science by communicating my own research in a palatable and accessible way.” 

To learn more about the Churchill Scholarship or about other fellowship and grant opportunities, visit the University Fellowships Office website.

The University Fellowships Office is part of Penn State Undergraduate Education, the academic administrative unit that provides leadership and coordination for University-wide programs and initiatives in support of undergraduate teaching and learning at Penn State. Learn more about Undergraduate Education at undegrad.psu.edu.

Contacts: 

Beth Kocher Gormley

Work Phone: 
814-863-1446

Director of Communications, Undergraduate Education

Last Updated May 13, 2016