Two URI juniors win prestigious Goldwater Scholarships

KINGSTON, R.I. – April 5, 2021 – Two juniors at the University of Rhode Island have been awarded $7,500 as recipients of the 2021 Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, the most prestigious national scholarship for undergraduate students studying the natural sciences, mathematics or engineering.

Raymond Turrisi of West Warwick, Rhode Island, a mechanical engineering and computer science major, and Myles Wagner of Dudley, Massachusetts, a marine biology and cell and molecular biology major, were selected for the scholarships. They are among 410 recipients of the scholarship this year from a pool of more than 5,000 applicants.

Twenty-four URI students have been named Goldwater Scholars since 1989.

Raymond Turrisi
Raymond Turrisi

“I wasn’t sure I was even going to go to college, so to have attained a Goldwater Scholarship means that anything is possible,” said Turrisi, a first-generation college student minoring in robotics and mathematics. “I was very surprised and emotional when I heard I got it.”

Turrisi has worked extensively with URI Assistant Professor Mingxi Zhou on the development of underwater robotic instruments for gathering oceanographic data. He constructed a prototype of a multi-purpose autonomous underwater vehicle with a unique thruster that provides improved maneuverability so it can undertake a wider variety of investigations than existing vehicles.

“It could be used with an autonomous docking system off Block Island to inspect the offshore wind turbines, for example,” he said. “It’s also modular, so it can be equipped with different sensors depending on the data you want to gather from the water column.”

After he graduates from URI in 2022, Turrisi plans to earn a doctorate in robotics engineering and develop robotics applications for unmanned exploration of unstructured environments.

“A lot of research today in these fields is very expensive and inaccessible to most scientists, but the autonomous vehicles I want to design will provide greater accessibility to the scientific community,” Turrisi said. “I also want my contribution to robotics to be automating roles that humans can’t do safely or efficiently.”

Myles Wagner
Myles Wagner

Wagner became interested in marine biology after learning to scuba dive and observing the bleaching of coral reefs.

“I love the ocean, but I can also see the issues it’s facing, and I decided I wanted to pursue a career that would solve some of those problems,” he said, noting that he “did a little jump for joy” when he heard he was awarded the Goldwater Scholarship.

He has conducted research for several years in the genetics lab of URI Assistant Professor Carlos Prada, where he has examined the symbiotic relationships between corals and the algae that provide them with energy and color.

“As the ocean gets warmer, the symbiosis breaks down and causes the coral to bleach, which leads to widespread death of the corals and the ecosystem,” Wagner said. “Corals are extremely important for the health of the ocean. They’ve created these important ecosystems that provide food and shelter for a quarter of the life in the ocean and are relied upon by over half a billion people.”

Last year, Wagner, an Honors Program participant, was awarded an Ernest Hollings Scholarship from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the most prestigious scholarship for undergraduates studying marine biology. One benefit of the scholarship is the opportunity to intern at a NOAA laboratory. Pending the status of the pandemic, he plans to work on coral restoration at NOAA’s Pacific Island Regional Office on the island of Saipan.

Upon graduation, he plans to earn a doctorate studying coral restoration and coral conservation.   “After that, my plans are somewhat up in the air,” he said. “I want to find a path that lets me make an impact for the betterment of the oceans and coral reefs.”

The Goldwater Scholarship is so prestigious that students can apply only if they are nominated by their academic institution, which can nominate up to four students. At URI, the application process is conducted through the Office of National Fellowships and Academic Opportunities within the Honors Program.

The Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation was established by Congress in 1986 to serve as a living memorial to honor the lifetime work of Senator Barry Goldwater, who served the United States for 56 years as a soldier and statesman, including 30 years in the U.S. Senate.