Colgate Biology Major Earns Goldwater Scholarship

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Jacob Watts ’21, a biology major from North East, Pa., has been awarded a 2020 Goldwater scholarship from the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation. Watts was among 1,343 applicants for the fellowship and one of 396 recipients — only 287 of whom are majoring in natural sciences.

Watts is an Arnold and Mabel Beckman Scholar and an Alumni Memorial Scholar (AMS), conducting research on the ecophysiology of ferns under the mentorship of biology professor James “Eddie” Watkins.

“I have always been inspired by the natural world since I was a little boy and would go exploring in the woods for hours on end,” Watts said. “As a first year, I was dumbfounded when I first walked into the Watkins lab. I was hooked instantly by all of the possibilities to run my own experiments and the freedom to explore the plant world.”

During his Colgate career, Watts has participated in three research trips to Costa Rica. The summer following his first year at the University, he spent two weeks hiking the rainforests and collecting fern spores with Watkins. During the course of their travels, the pair discovered that a fern long thought to live only on the bark of trees was actually a hemiepiphyte — a plant that is rooted simultaneously to the tree and to the ground. Watts served as lead author on the resulting journal article, published last year in the Annals of Botany.

During the winter break of his sophomore year, Watts used his AMS funding and support from the Center for Learning, Teaching, and Research to return to the country for a graduate-level class taught by Watkins and Weston Testo ’12. And, just last winter, he was back for an extended study with his tropical ecology class, guided by biology professor and Gretchen Hoadley Burke ’81 Endowed Chair in Regional Studies Catherine Cardelús.

Goldwater scholarships, according to the federally endowed agency, are awarded to students who show, “strong commitment to a research career in the natural sciences, mathematics and engineering; intellectual intensity in the sciences, mathematics and engineering; and potential for a significant future contribution to research in his/her chosen field.”

Demonstrating that intensity, Watts embraces the complexity of his field and the opportunities afforded in the Watkins lab.

“While assisting in a research project is challenging and beneficial in its own ways, it is much more laborious and demanding to plan and execute a research project of your own,” Watts said. “It involves so much more than one would first imagine — including background research, gathering collection and export permits, buying materials, and allotting the correct amount of time for each experiment, all to possibly have the whole project not produce any fruitful results. It can be frustrating and is definitely one of the most challenging things that I have done at Colgate, which is why I love it.”

Colgate students and alumni have been awarded many of the most competitive national and international fellowships and scholarships. For more information, visit the Office of National Fellowships and Scholarships.