Barrett sophomore Isabela Huckabee awarded Goldwater Scholarship

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April 7, 2021

Isabela Huckabee’s head has been in the stars for years.

As a junior in high school, while many of her peers were reading Instagram posts, she was reading articles from scientific journals. One article, in particular, seized her attention: it pointed out major errors in the predictions that astrophysicists had made about the size of certain types of stars that are most likely to host habitable planets.

“I was appalled,” recalled Huckabee, now a sophomore astrophysics major in Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University. “How did they mess up that bad? Of course, I didn’t know exactly who ‘they’ were, but at that moment, I declared it my life’s purpose to understand these stars, and their exoplanets, correctly,” she said. 

Now 19 years old, Huckabee finds herself among “their” ranks and has been awarded the Goldwater Scholarship for her outstanding potential as an undergraduate researcher. She was chosen from a pool of over 1,200 of the nation’s most outstanding natural science, engineering and mathematics students. Nearly all of the scholars intend to obtain a doctoral degree.

“Being selected as a Goldwater Scholar is one of the greatest honors available for an undergraduate STEM major,” said Dr. Kyle Mox, Associate Dean for National Scholarships Advisement. “Each of the 1,200 applicants was nominated by their college or university as one of the best undergraduate researchers on their campus, so the competition is pretty fierce. Forgive the pun, but Izzy is in a completely different orbit now.”

Huckabee is the 18th Sun Devil to be awarded a Goldwater Scholarship in the past decade, and the 38th since 2006, placing ASU ahead of Princeton, Columbia, Duke, Northwestern, and Berkeley for output. Established by Congress in 1986 to serve as a living memorial to former Arizona Senator Barry M. Goldwater, the scholarship ensures that the United States continues to produce cutting-edge researchers in critical fields. The scholarship awards up to $7,500 to cover educational expenses and immense prestige. 

Winning this major scholarship will move Huckabee one step closer to her long-term goals. “In high school, I seriously questioned if I was even able to go to a four-year university,” she said. “The Goldwater Scholarship gives me the freedom to pursue my different research interests without having to worry about finances, and in a couple years I'm hoping it will boost me into a Ph.D. program,” she added.

The benefits of the Goldwater Scholarship go far beyond the monetary award and the resume line, however. 

“This past year has been really weird for everyone, me included,” Huckabee said. 

“I'll admit that, isolated from all my peers, I've been struggling with exactly who I am and who I want to become, so the Goldwater application process and actually getting the award itself has helped me solidify that, yes, this is the work I truly love.” 

As a member of the exoplanet research group in the ASU School of Earth and Space Exploration, Huckabee is striving to immerse herself in the world of modeling and theory. She currently works with Ph.D. candidate Aishwarya Iyer and Dr. Michael Line in the ASU/NASA Space Grant program to characterize the atmospheres of puffy, low surface gravity M-dwarfs, a type of star that could likely host habitable planets. 

She also contributes to Dr. Rogier Windhorst's project SKYSURF in ASU's cosmology group and has worked in space physics with Dr. Hong Zhao and the Boulder Solar Alliance. This summer, she plans to continue her work in stellar modeling with Siddhant Deshmukh at the University of Heidelberg in Germany.

Huckabee said that with the support of the Goldwater Scholarship, she will continue her research in stellar modeling and enter a doctoral program in astrophysics. Her hopes are, in her words, to “create the best models anyone has ever seen. A lofty goal, but that’s the idea of scientific advancement, right?”

“I want to become the supreme explorer of our galaxy,” she added. “Think Lewis and Clark but the Louisiana Purchase is the Milky Way. This exact position doesn’t exist yet, but when it opens up I’ll have my CV ready.”

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