University of Wisconsin senior Daniel Lecoanet has become the first UW student in 30 years to be awarded the Churchill Scholarship, an award that sends a graduated senior to Cambridge University for one year of post baccalaureate study.
Lecoanet, a native Madisonian who is graduating this spring, said he is looking forward to learning from the new set of distinguished researchers he will encounter at Cambridge.
“I think it should be a great opportunity,” he said. “There are a lot of really smart people at Cambridge who are doing really great work.”
Office of Undergraduate Academic Awards Director Julie Stubbs said Lecoanet was an outstanding candidate for the scholarship.
The selection process for this award is very selective, Stubbs said. Before a student can be considered, they must be nominated by his or her university. Stubbs said the foundation only takes nominations from 103 schools in the United States, UW being one of those schools.
She said schools that are allowed to nominate can only submit two students for consideration. After students are nominated they are considered by the foundation.
Lecoanet added the nominees are narrowed down to 24 finalists and finally 14 scholarship winners. He also noted he had to apply to Cambridge itself at the same time as he was applying for the scholarship.
Stubbs said though UW has long been allowed to nominate, the school has not submitted any candidates in some time. She added the responsibility of nominating for this scholarship was transferred to her office only this year.
Stubbs said she hopes this win will be an inspiration to other students considering applying for the award, adding she does not think it will be another 30 years before another UW student wins.
Lecoanet said Stubbs was a large contributor to him winning the scholarship, saying he doesn’t think the fact that he is the first winner in 30 years means that much about himself.
“It’s not that I’m exceptionally smart,” Lecoanet said. “A large part of me being successful here is due to Julie Stubbs.”
Lecoanet has been researching at a university level since the summer after his sophomore year of high school, he said, through a program that set high school students up with UW labs.
He added he has been working at the same lab ever since and is now the most senior student researcher there.
While Lecoanet has conducted research in many scientific fields as well as mathematics, he said his favorite topic is physics, specifically plasma physics. He explained he likes plasma physics because nearly everything around us is made up of plasma.
“If you want to understand anything in the universe, you have to be doing plasma physics,” Lecoanet said.
He said a more practical purpose for plasma physics research is the potential to convert ocean water into a clean, renewable fuel source. He said the process for this is very complex, but he indirectly worked on it last summer at Princeton.