Golden Opportunity

Math major Ella Wilson ’23 snags a prestigious Goldwater Scholarship, considered the premier award for undergraduate research in the natural sciences.

By David Hoyt ’14

Even before she arrived at Kenyon, Ella Wilson ’23 knew she wanted to pursue a career in mathematical research. This year, the math major from Cortland, New York, is one of just 417 college students nationwide — and only 12 in Ohio — to have her efforts recognized with a prestigious Goldwater Scholarship. 

Goldwater Scholarships are considered the premier award for undergraduate research in mathematics, engineering and the natural sciences, and Kenyon students are frequently recognized by the competitive program after being nominated by College faculty through a rigorous screening process. The honor, intended for students who plan to continue their research in graduate school, provides each winner with up to $7,500 for tuition and other education-related expenses.

“I came to Kenyon partly because I could have research experiences, but mostly because I knew that I wanted a small school and that I wanted great mentors,” said Wilson, who first learned of Kenyon through family friend Henry Steck ’57, a longtime political science professor at the nearby State University of New York College at Cortland. “And as a girl who really wants to go into math, it was a huge draw to me for the department to have all these amazing female mentors in a field that’s very heavily male dominated.”

Since her first year at Kenyon, Wilson has worked with Associate Professor of Mathematics Marie Snipes on research involving harmonic measure distribution functions, which are part of the abstract study of Brownian motion, a stochastic process that has been used to model random paths in nature. Wilson “approaches research with a mindset of playful exploration and fearless experimentation,” Snipes wrote In a letter supporting her application for the Goldwater Scholarship. “It is clear to me that Ella has the talent, drive, persistence and enthusiasm that will make her a successful mathematics researcher.”

"As a girl who really wants to go into math, it was a huge draw to me for the department to have all these amazing female mentors in a field that’s very heavily male dominated.”

Ella Wilson '23

This summer, Wilson will take her talents to New Haven to participate in Yale University’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. Working with Yale faculty, Wilson will explore areas of research that are related to but separate from her work at Kenyon. “It’s a completely different lens and a completely different type of similar areas of math, which I’m really excited about,” she said. Upon returning to Gambier, Wilson will undertake an independent study in functional analysis with Professor Mathematics Carol Schumacher, and otherwise spend her senior year completing her comprehensive examinations and diving into graduate school applications. 

When she’s not in the math department’s Hayes Hall, Wilson participates in a variety of activities beyond the Science Quad. She’s a three-year member of the women’s track and field and cross country teams, and plays oboe in Kenyon’s symphonic wind ensemble. Last fall, she was a winner of the Franklin Miller Award, a prize named for a longtime member of the physics faculty that recognizes students whose efforts and ingenuity make a significant difference in the life of the Kenyon community. Wilson has also taken leadership positions as president of the campus chapter of the Association for Women in Mathematics and as a coordinator of the K-STEM peer mentoring program. “That’s a great thing about Kenyon,” she said. “We all support each other.”

Goldwater Scholars often go on to win a variety of additional awards in their fields, including National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships, Rhodes Scholarships and more. The Goldwater Foundation was established by Congress in the 1980s to honor Senator Barry Goldwater and to foster and encourage outstanding students to pursue research careers.

Wilson’s ultimate goal, besides continuing to pursue cutting-edge research, is to teach mathematics and inspire students in the same way Wilson’s mentors have inspired her. “That's definitely something that I want out of my future career,” she said. “To have that teaching and research balance of helping the next generation of mathematicians, but also being part of the current. … Hopefully I’ll be able to land at a small school somewhere, because I love the community you’re able to form.”

Despite the many steps still ahead of her, Wilson is sure of herself, and winning the Goldwater Scholarship has only boosted her confidence. “I am someone who knows what I want,” she said. “And if I can figure out a way to make it happen, I will try my best.”