Our Stories

Math + Chemistry = Goldwater

Jeff Weber '10 was raised to be a biologist. His biologist parents introduced him to microscopes at a young age, and dinner conversations revolved around family concerns like state health issues (his mom) and the restoration of Montana's rivers (his dad).

His own foray into science took place at a lab in Montana, a state strewn with Superfund sites. Weber tested heavy metal concentrations in water, fish, soil and blood samples as a summer intern. When mines close down, he says, they leave diminished towns and sites laced with toxic heavy metals. "The mines are a huge issue."

At Willamette, Weber's instinctual love of math emerged, and he also found himself gravitating toward chemistry, rather than biology. "As far as my parents are concerned, I've committed a small act of treason," he grins. "But I like math, and it has more practical applications to chemistry than biology."

His act of treason has paid off -- in a big way. Weber just received a prestigious Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, which supports math and science students who demonstrate outstanding potential. He is now a math/chemistry double major, hoping to find intersections between the two fields.

"Pure math is all theory," Weber says. "I'm interested in applying abstract mathematics to analysis of chemical structures and to specific questions in science. It's cool to know what will happen before it happens, and to explain processes with concepts that don't have anything to do with our everyday lives. For example, mathematicians use imaginary numbers in a very abstract way -- such numbers, after all, are called 'imaginary' -- but it turns out that a lot of scientific applications need imaginary numbers to arrive at solutions.

"There's kind of a stigma about pure abstract math, that it doesn't really mean anything to anyone outside the field -- kind of like philosophy -- but the applications are what excite me the most, the places where it does mean something."

Weber's proposed research will look at the application of an algebraic method to theoretical chemistry and will allow for a degree of abstraction seldom seen in chemical calculations. In particular, it will examine electric dipole allowed electronic transitions.

Weber is also on the Willamette golf team ("Not many people know we have one!") and the debate team. Debate appeals to him in an almost mathematical way. "I like the logic of arguments. If this, then that, and then that -- kind of like math or chess. Debate is great training for politicians and lawyers and teachers, but I look at it more as a game."

His strength in science makes Weber a formidable debate opponent when the topic is pharmaceutical drug oversight, global warming, environmental protection or alternative energy, including nuclear power. He reads The New York Times online every day to keep abreast of issues.

Weber landed a very competitive summer internship at UC-Davis, where he'll do lab work with a professional research team. And then he'll return to his studies at Willamette, to continue tracing the "this, then that" logic of pure math applied to chemistry.

For information on the Goldwater Scholarship and others, contact Monique Bourque in the Student Academic Grants and Awards office on the second floor of the University Center.