Goldwater Scholar discovers passion for research

Gragg working in a lab

Madalyn Gragg, an undergraduate in mechanical engineering and general physics, is one of three students at Oregon State University chosen to receive the 2024 Barry Goldwater Scholarship, a national award established in 1986 in memory of Sen. Barry Goldwater.

In her scholarship application essay, Gragg reflected on the challenges she faced in getting into college coming from a school designated under Title I-A as a school that serves children from families experiencing poverty.

Gragg, who grew up in the unincorporated town of Wamic (population 52) in Wasco County, Oregon, says it’s important to bring attention to the lack of funding for crucial courses.

Madalyn Gragg profile

“My school didn’t have art, which was depressing,” Gragg said. “We barely had a health or sexual education program, and we didn’t have a college advisor. The curriculum had students thinking they probably wouldn’t be going to college.”

Gragg’s parents both have worked as electricians. Her mother also attended college. “A lot of people in small, rural communities effectively have to rely on their own connections; it feels isolated,” Gragg said. “I was really lucky my mom helped me.”

At first, Gragg naturally gravitated towards mechanical engineering, but she shifted her focus toward nanoscience and photovoltaics after some coursework in materials science. Last summer she participated in the SURE Science summer undergraduate research experience with physics professor Oksana Ostroverkhova, who nominated her for the Goldwater scholarship.

In Ostroverkhova’s lab, Gragg works with organic semiconducting materials, specifically looking to improve solar energy-harvesting in photovoltaic devices. Gragg says she enjoys the interdisciplinary nature of her project, which uses knowledge from physics, electrical engineering, and chemistry. The lab is looking to produce materials that surpass the fundamental limits of silicon, the primary material used for solar harvesting, or that can be hybridized with silicon.

After graduating in 2025, Gragg will apply to Cornell University for graduate school, where she hopes to join a research group doing photovoltaics research similar to her own. Gragg says the Barry Goldwater Scholarship has reinforced her determination to continue on her current path.

“The true euphoria feeling only happens right after you’ve won,” she said. “I feel more focused on my research than ever before, because I realize that what I’m going to be doing on a daily basis is the thing I care about most — and that’s my research.”

July 1, 2024