Talk to Nathan Wagner '17 about math, and you'll soon hear the enthusiasm rise in his voice. You'll see a smile take shape on his face as he explains an equation he finds particularly beautiful in its logical simplicity, like the proof that the square root of two is an irrational number.
"The logical structure of mathematics is really appealing to me," said Wagner, a mathematics major minoring in physics and music. "You can deduce amazing conclusions starting from only a few basic starting principles, just using logic."
Wagner now has something else to smile about: a national recognition for the hard academic work he so enjoys doing. In March, he was awarded a Barry Goldwater Scholarship, one of the most prestigious honors conferred to undergraduates studying the sciences, mathematics and engineering.
Established by Congress in honor of the longtime senator from Arizona, the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Program provides scholarships of up to $7,500 for college sophomores and juniors who intend to pursue research careers in those fields. Universities may nominate no more than four students for the approximately 300 awards bestowed annually, making scholarship application process exceedingly competitive.
"It is a great honor, and it carries with it a certain amount of prestige," Wagner said. "It definitely will help me in my goal of getting into a graduate school."
Wagner was mentored in his application for the scholarship by Professor Pamela Gorkin, mathematics, with whom he began collaborating during his first year at Bucknell. He credits their research together, which was recently accepted for publication by the Journal of Mathematical Analysis and Applications, with helping him earn the Goldwater scholarship.
"I couldn't have done this without Professor Gorkin and the opportunities she provided to do research," he said. "If I didn't have the publication and I hadn't done the research, I don't think I would have gotten the award. It's something that sets you apart from other undergraduates."
Wagner also had the opportunity to present his work at the 2016 Joint Mathematics Meetings conference in Seattle, the largest annual gathering of mathematicians in the world. The trip was enabled through a research stipend provided by the John C. Hoover '82 Fund for Undergraduate Math Research.
"Nathan was grilled by three judges and, because of his ability to explain deep mathematics in a clear way, his presentation was judged to be 'outstanding,' placing him in the top 15 percent of the more than 300 presenters," Gorkin said, adding that she has also been impressed by Wagner's skills and dedication.
"His natural talent combined with his passion, dedication and willingness to spend long hours working on a very difficult problem place him among the top students I have had in my 33 years at Bucknell University."
A member of the Bucknell Orchestra and the Bucknell Interfaith Council, Wagner plans to pursue an honor's thesis with Professor Gregory Adams, mathematics, in his senior year before moving on to pursue a doctorate in math. While leaning toward pure math, Wagner is keeping an open mind about exactly what he'll study in graduate school. What is certain, he said, is that he'll be passionate about what he pursues.
"Mathematicians often talk about the beauty of mathematics — that certain equations and theorems are beautiful because they relate unexpected things, or the ideas involved in the proof are really elegant," Wagner said. "That combination of mathematical beauty and logical structures really attracts me."