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Air Force veteran wins prestigious Goldwater Scholarship

As a child in Texas, Rodney Elliott dreamed of going to college and studying science but it was a dream deferred because of family finances. He joined the Air Force and, after a 20-year career, enrolled at  West Virginia University gaining accolades, not just from his professors, but by winning the most prestigious undergraduate scholarship in the natural sciences, mathematics, and engineering—the Goldwater Scholarship. 

Rodney Elliott
Rodney Elliott

Elliott, who now lives in Fairmont, is a dual major in  physics and  Russian studies in the  Eberly College of Arts and Sciences. His childhood fascination with space is now a serious exploration of supermassive binary black holes.

“These fascinating objects are the remnants of galaxy mergers and are a source of gravitational waves that we should be able to detect using pulsar timing arrays,” he explained.

Extraterrestrial research is a long way from his early days in the Air Force when he was driving a truck in South Korea but he took advantage of the educational opportunities the military provides and by the time he retired, he was a Russian linguist. He knew he wanted to go back to college so he and his wife, Kami, who was also in the military, began to plan the next chapter of their lives. She is a native of Fairmont and when he looked at the program and WVU’s involvement in Green Bank Observatory, he knew this was the university for him. Last summer he was thrilled to attend what he called a radio astronomy dream camp at Green Bank where he worked on a research project estimating the mass of the Milky Way galaxy.

“The whole experience confirmed my desire to study the cosmos and share that knowledge with others,” Elliott said. “I feel so fortunate to work on my degree at a top research school like WVU.”

Elliott is believed to be the first non-traditional student nominated by WVU for a Goldwater Scholarship. The committee that reviews applications found him particularly compelling because of his non-traditional path and his nearly flawless academic record.

“His professors and research mentor report that he is a stellar student who passionately pursues his interest in the mysteries of the universe,” said  Dr. Ken Blemings, WVU faculty advisor for the Goldwater Scholarship. “He is seen as an informal mentor to the students who elected him president of the Astronomy Club.”

Elliott’s goal is to pursue a doctoral degree and become a university professor. “Having served my country for 20 years, I now wish to continue my service by contributing in some small way to humankind’s understanding of our universe,” he said.

The Goldwater Scholarship Foundation also recognized Mikal Dufor, a junior physics major from Williamstown, with an honorable mention. He has received an additional honor of being selected for the National Institute of Scientific Technology summer program in Boulder, Colorado where he will be constructing a new type of laser meant for single atom isolation for the development of atomic clocks.

The Goldwater Scholarship Program, one of the oldest and most prestigious national scholarships in the natural sciences, engineering and mathematics in the United States, identifies and supports college sophomores and juniors who show exceptional promise of becoming America’s next generation of research leaders in these fields. The scholarship is worth up to $7,500 to help cover educational costs.