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Sea sponges collected by Jenn Higgins from the Maine coast.  Photo courtesy of J. Higgins

Jennifer Higgins and Gregory Petrics receive Goldwater Scholarships

November 1, 2005

MIDDLEBURY, Vt.-Middlebury College seniors Gregory Petrics and Jennifer Higgins each recently received a prestigious Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, a national award granted annually to outstanding students pursuing
careers in mathematics, natural sciences and engineering.  To be selected for the scholarship from a pool of more than 1,000 nominees, Higgins and Petrics submitted essays that discussed a significant problem in their respective fields of study, together with independent faculty evaluations. Higgins' essay was titled "Isolation of Potential Antibacterial, Antifungal, and Anticancer Drugs from Marine Sponges" and Petrics' was "Approaching the Poincaré Conjecture."
Gregory Petrics smiles from Mt. Katahdin, Maine, the day after returning from study abroad in Budapest. Photo courtesy of G. Petrics
Higgins, a molecular biology and biochemistry major, began researching marine sponges in fall 2003 for a project in Middlebury College Professor of Biology Tom Root's class in invertebrate biology.  "Jennifer's project was unique, well-designed and very thoughtful.  She is very bright, deliberative, disciplined and ambitious," said Root.

According to Higgins, who plans to continue this investigation for her senior thesis project, antibiotic resistance is increasing and traditional sources of medicinal drugs have been nearly exhausted. "The most promising source of new drugs is the ocean," she said.  "The ocean covers 70 percent of the planet and is estimated to contain more than 80 percent of the planet's plant and animal species."
Jennifer Higgins rappels a coastal Maine cliff side to collect sea sponges. Photo courtesy J. Higgins 
For her thesis project, Higgins is concentrating on species of marine sponges found off the coast of Maine.  She believes the research she has already completed attests to the viability of using sea sponge derivatives to address the problem of antibiotic resistance. In 2003, she conducted a preliminary study, called a bioassay, of two sponge species, and discovered one of them to have antimicrobial activity, an indicator of potential anti-cancer activity.
"The search for potential drugs is not only relevant to me as a scientist, but is also very important to the entire human population," said Higgins, "Many ocean species suffer from pathologic conditions similar to humans, and this type of research may soon hold the key to the fight against cancer and the evolution of antibiotic resistance." Higgins intends to pursue a career in marine biomedicine and marine pathology research after graduation from Middlebury College next May.

Gregory Petrics' essay involved the Poincaré conjecture, a difficult mathematical problem that has engrossed mathematicians for the past century. The Cambridge, Mass.-based Clay Mathematics Institute includes the Poincaré conjecture in its famed Millennium Prize Problems, offering $1 million to anyone who can prove or refute it.  According to Petrics,  Russian mathematician Grigori Perelman proposed a proof in 2003 which is still under review but continues to withstand the toughest scrutiny by a global mathematical community.
"At the time of Perelman's initial publication, I was just beginning my study of advanced mathematics," said Petrics, a mathematics major. "I was already insatiably curious, and was fascinated to learn how the truth of the conjecture pertains directly to every observation ever made.  Regardless of whether Perelman's proof is correct, mathematicians agree that the techniques and ideas of his efforts are amazingly creative, and will provide ample room for additional investigation."
Petrics has further explored the Poincaré conjecture in an independent study on algebraic topology. "I have been impressed by Greg's great work ethic and careful eye for logical detail," said Middlebury College Assistant Professor of Mathematics Frank Swenton, who is Petrics' academic advisor, and himself a former Goldwater Scholar. "Greg's academic strength is complemented very well by his desire to teach others. In addition to his academic achievements, he is also a highly respected tutor at our student-run, drop-in help sessions, and is pursuing a certificate in teacher education along with his mathematics major."

One of about 60 scholars selected for St. Olaf College's Budapest Semester in Mathematics, Petrics studied abroad in spring 2005, and now, back on Middlebury's Vermont campus, has turned his focus to a geometry problem related to the Poincaré conjecture.

"I'm working in a branch of mathematics known as Riemannian geometry studying a class of manifolds known as the compact 2-orbifolds.  It's complicated, " he said. "Perhaps the short story is, my research involves proving that on any compact 2-orbifold, it is always possible to find an infinite number of ways to travel so that you're always minimizing the distance between any two points of your journey."
After completing his bachelor's degree, Petrics intends to pursue graduate studies in pure mathematics. "This is difficult and exciting material, and I'm looking forward to studying it further," he said.

The Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship was authorized by Congress in 1986 to honor the late United States Senator Barry M. Goldwater. The program seeks to provide a continuing source of highly qualified scientists, mathematicians and engineers. In the program's 19-year history, it has awarded 4,562 scholarships with a total value of approximately $45 million.