Engineering, Music Student Wins Goldwater Scholarship

Posted on April 8, 2024
Thomas Becnel

Paul Nguyen, an engineering and music student at the University of South Alabama, earned a 2024 Goldwater Scholarship based on his undergraduate research in protein biophysics.
Paul Nguyen, an engineering and music student at the University of South Alabama, earned a 2024 Goldwater Scholarship based on his undergraduate research in protein biophysics.

Paul Nguyen, a scholar and musician at the University of South Alabama, used undergraduate research in protein biophysics to earn a prestigious 2024 Goldwater Scholarship for outstanding science students.

In his spare time, the 20-year-old sophomore won a Gulf Coast Steinway Society piano competition and got the chance to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York City. He played “La Campanella” by Franz Liszt.

“It was a little nerve-wracking, being on one of the biggest stages in the world,” he said, “but I thought it was fun.”

Nguyen plans to attend medical school after graduating from South in 2026. He is looking to enroll in a dual-degree M.D.-Ph.D. program with a focus on biomedical engineering. At South, he’s majoring in music and chemical engineering.

Dr. Christy Wheeler West, associate professor of chemical engineering, met Nguyen when he took one of her undergraduate classes. She came away impressed with both his academic work and social skills.

“Paul’s absolutely brilliant, but he’s also a team player and fun to have in class,” West said. “I can’t tell you how many times I had a student in my office who’d had a question, and they’d say, ‘I was confused about that part, but then I talked to Paul.’ That became a refrain throughout the semester.”

Nguyen grew up in Beaverton, Oregon, just outside Portland, and thought he might study engineering on the West Coast. Instead, he crossed the country to enroll at the University of South Alabama, where his mother, Teresa Tran, earned a degree in mathematics in 1990.

In Mobile, he hasn’t picked up a Southern accent, or learned to say “y’all,” but he has acquired a taste for crawfish.

Nguyen continues to play the piano at South. He enjoys performing with student ensembles on campus. He played a duet at a holiday concert.

“Piano is a very solitary instrument,” he said, “so it’s great when I get a chance to play with others.”

Nguyen still enjoys the rigor and discipline of solo performances. This spring he’s preparing for a competition in Tuscaloosa.  

“My favorite composer is Sergei Rachmaninoff – I think he’s cool,” he said. “I’m learning his third piano concerto right now and that piece is a monster.”

At South, Nguyen has been active in Alpha Epsilon Delta, the health honor society, along with the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers. For these groups, he often helps coordinate events and fundraisers.

“It does require a bit of creativity, and I do plan a lot of the meetings and workshops,” he said. “We’re in the process of planning a hack-a-thon, which should be a lot of fun.”

Nguyen follows a busy schedule of classwork and study, but said he has found time for courses outside of music and engineering. In one computer class, he learned the basics of the C++ programming language.

This summer, he hopes to continue his last summer’s research at Princeton University studying protein aggregation. There, he spent nine weeks in a Research Experience for Undergraduates program funded by the National Science Foundation. He used computer simulations to study protein aggregation under Dr. Jerelle Joseph.

The Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Program was established by Congress in 1986 to honor Arizona Sen. Barry M. Goldwater. The scholarships encourage highly qualified students who intend to pursue careers in science, mathematics and engineering.

Nguyen will receive $7,500 a year for the rest of his undergraduate career. The national award should help his applications to medical school. It’s already opening doors for him.

“Now that I’m in that network,” he said, “I’m connected to a whole group of people interested in research.”

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