Goldwater Scholars To Explore the Frontiers of Math, Origins of the Universe

April 16, 2024 By Matt Kelly, mkelly@virginia.edu Matt Kelly, mkelly@virginia.edu

Working with the vastness of numbers, and of the universe, two University of Virginia undergraduate students have received coveted Goldwater Scholarships.

Catherine Cossaboom, a third-year mathematics and cognitive science major, and Samuel Crowe, a third-year astronomy-physics and history major, received the prestigious award from the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation.

Andrus G. Ashoo, director of the Office of Citizen Scholar Development, explained the significance of the scholarship in praising the students.

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“This is arguably the most well-known stamp of approval an undergraduate STEM student can receive as an up-and-coming researcher prior to their fourth year,” he wrote. “However, Catherine and Sam are both insatiably curious and have worked very hard to be at the forefront of their fields. In short, they already are significant researchers.”

Samuel Crowe

Crowe, of Chesapeake, pursues pathways into the past as an astronomy and physics student studying the origins of the universe and as a history student researching ancient Rome. 

“Both studies require a certain level of creativity to take what limited information is available – since objects that are far away or events that happened a very long time ago are impossible to fully characterize – to infer and make arguments about the processes or narratives that lie underneath,” Crowe said. “I think that tie between the two is not only striking, but also greatly assists in my study of each.”

In astronomy, Crowe studies the formation of massive stars. He currently works with data from the James Webb Space Telescope’s observations of a massive star-forming region in the center of the Milky Way galaxy to help understand its extreme physical conditions, which are akin to the centers of other galaxies and the early universe.

“Massive stars are a crucial piece of the puzzle in understanding the evolution of the universe to its present state; this is important not only because it allows us to probe the very earliest times of the universe’s history close to the Big Bang,” Crowe said, “But it allows us to understand how the universe will evolve from its current state into the future.”

Crowe spent a summer in Sweden working in the research group led by professor Jonathan C. Tan in the UVA Department of Astronomy, using infrared wavelengths of light to probe the physical characteristics of massive, still-forming stars. The next year, Crowe obtained Webb Telescope data on the galactic center star-forming region Sagittarius C, making him the first undergraduate to be a Webb Telescope principal investigator.

A picture of Samuel Crowe inside the planetarium.
Crowe’s fascination with the past has him pursuing astronomy, to study the origins of the universe, and history, to research ancient Rome. (Photo by Emily Faith Morgan, University Communications)

“Sam shows great enthusiasm for research and is always seeking to explore new directions and form new collaborations,” Tan said. “Sam is fully deserving of the Goldwater Scholarship, and we continue to expect great things of him in the future.”

In the summer of 2023, Crowe worked with Rubén Fedriani in Granada, Spain, researching the energetic outflows from massive protostars using infrared data taken during UVA’s designated time on the Large Binocular Telescope in Arizona. The work is published in a refereed paper in the Astrophysical Journal.

“Sam impressed me with his proactiveness and passion,” Fedriani said. “We made it happen and he secured a Virginia Space Grant Consortium Fellowship. We worked in massive star formation using data from some of the best telescopes in the world, including the Large Binocular Telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope.”

Crowe is a scientist also drawn to the liberal arts.

“My study of history has contributed tremendously to my work as a scientist,” Crowe said. “I would say that my aptitude for the liberal arts provides the most direct benefit when I need to act as a communicator in any capacity – writing research papers, preparing research talks to other scientists, and communications with the general public.”

Over time, Crowe has learned he is more capable as a person and scholar than he once thought. 

“I am grateful to have learned early in my academic career that the opportunities that seem most daunting in my mind are the ones that I should most doggedly pursue, and that the uncomfortable or stressful moments that accompany many aspects of being a student are to be sought after and cherished as invaluable opportunities to grow and improve,” he said.

Catherine Cossaboom

Cossaboom’s work focuses on understanding the intricacies of number theoretic sequences, such as primes and partition numbers.

“Math is like music to me,” Cossaboom said. “When you first learn to play a musical instrument, you start by playing a few notes, which is similar to what most people think mathematicians do: simply solving equations and computing large numbers.”

Mathematics, she said, is more than that.

“Mathematics is actually about much more: building elegant theories to understand entire landscapes of potential problems,” she said. “You have to know how to play the notes, but to truly create art, you have to innovate, bring new ideas together, and be intentional about the narrative you weave with them. This artistry is what draws me to mathematics. The tools we use are really quite beautiful.”

Cossaboom has made significant progress toward a longstanding conjecture concerning the frequency of odd partition numbers and forged novel connections between Fields Medal-winning theorems. Her research has been published in the Ramanujan Journal and was just accepted for publication in the Journal of Number Theory. She said receiving a Goldwater Scholarship represents the culmination of years of hard work.

“Doing mathematics requires so much heart,” Cossaboom said. “I am grateful that the Goldwater Foundation saw a piece of mine. I’ve always loved playing with numbers, but in middle school, something crystalized when I started reading popular math books written by mathematicians such as Eugenia Cheng and Jordan Ellenberg. That world seemed so detached and distant at the time, but the Goldwater Scholarship has made me realize how attainable it is.”

A picture of Catherine Cossaboom writing math formulas.
For Cossaboom, mathematics is about building elegant theories to understand entire landscapes of potential problems. (Photo by Emily Faith Morgan, University Communications)

Ken Ono, STEM adviser to UVA’s provost and Marvin Rosenblum Professor of Mathematics, said Cossaboom’s achievements are extraordinary.

“Catherine Cossaboom is an international star undergraduate in mathematics,” Ono said. “Catherine is the most talented UVA math student I’ve encountered, by a wide margin. She is on the radar of some of the world’s best mathematicians. She will be a significant mathematician in the future.”

Cossaboom, an Atlanta native, said the scholarship affirms her ability to make a profound impact on mathematics. She is currently investigating the arithmetic statistical interactions between sets of restricted partitions, and this summer, she plans to conduct research in Germany under a joint appointment at the University of Cologne and the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in Bonn. 

Cossaboom has led UVA’s Association of Women in Mathematics chapter since she arrived at the University.

“I care deeply about uplifting women who wish to pursue mathematical careers,” she said. “I hope that receiving the Goldwater Scholarship will encourage undergraduate women to dream big and see themselves tackling challenging problems.”

Being a student at UVA has taught Cossaboom how resilient she has become, thanks to her mentors.

“It only requires your mind and some chalk to do mathematics, and while that is incredibly freeing, it is also so daunting,” she said. “There are quite literally infinite possibilities for how you can string ideas together. It’s easy to feel small when faced with the enormity of what you are trying to understand. 

“I’ve had many moments where I was afraid to place myself way outside of my comfort zone, but there are truly no limits to what you can understand and accomplish if you work hard enough. I’m beyond grateful for the friends, family and mentors who helped me see that I can continue to surprise myself with what I can achieve.”

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications