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Baxa Awarded Phi Kappa Phi Graduate Fellowship

April 15, 2002

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Michael C. Baxa. (Download print-quality image)
Photo of Baxa.

MACOMB, IL - - In 1998 Aledo High School graduate Michael C. Baxa chose to fully explore his potential in physics and mathematics when he enrolled in Western Illinois University and its Illinois Centennial Honors College. Four productive years later, including three years in a physics research laboratory, Baxa has earned two prestigious national fellowships to assist him in his graduate studies.

The latest honor counts him among 52 students nationwide to receive the Phi Kappa Phi Graduate Fellowship. In Spring 2001, Baxa was the first WIU student to receive the Goldwater Scholarship, a federally endowed, highly distinguished award named in honor of former U.S. Senator Barry M. Goldwater and designed to provide a continuing source of highly-qualified individuals in science, math and engineering study and research.

Baxa is the fourth WIU student to earn the Phi Kappa Phi Graduate Fellowship in each of the past four years. Previous winners were Macomb residents Kianor Shahmohammadi (2001), formerly of Germany; and Matthew Walker (2000); and Matthew Bills (1999) of Harristown.

The Phi Kappa Phi Graduate Fellowship, which is based on a student's cumulative academic record and includes an $8,000 award for the first year of graduate study, requires a demonstrated long-term commitment to academic research throughout the undergraduate career. Each university chapter may nominate one student per year for the fellowship; and each nominee receives an Active-for-Life membership in Phi Kappa Phi.

"Michael's portfolio was truly outstanding, I only wish that we could have nominated more than one applicant," said Steven Rock, chair of WIU's Phi Kappa Phi Graduate Fellowship and Scholarship committee, in reference to the overall quality of Western's students.

Baxa, a student in Western's Illinois Centennial Honors College with a near perfect 4.0 grade point average, has conducted research in condensed matter physics, with a specialization in superconductivity under the director of Mark Boley, WIU associate professor of physics. Baxa also has studied the past two summers at Argonne National Laboratory.

"I was eager to get my feet wet in research so that I would have a better idea of what I wanted to pursue in graduate school, and so I approached Dr. Boley at the beginning of my sophomore year," Baxa said. "Superconductivity was appealing to me in part because of what it offered -- the ability to not lose any power in electrical transmission. Also, Dr. Boley's research group, which consisted of graduate and undergraduate students, offered me an environment to conduct research projects while learning the physics at the same time in a friendly and conducive environment."

Photo of Baxa in lab with Boley.
(Download print-quality image)
Baxa and Boley in lab.

Baxa said his research opportunities within the Honors program has been "an excellent experience."

"My initial research with Dr. Boley led me to apply for research grants from the Honors College and later the Honors Council of the Illinois Region. These grants were in conjunction with Honors research projects I conducted under Dr. Boley, which helped to allow me to participate in summer internships at Argonne National Laboratory," Baxa explained. "My first internship at Argonne, namely at the Advanced Photon Source, filled out my honors thesis since I was able to implement research methods not accessible at WIU.

"These opportunities in physics and the Honors College that I was able to take advantage of opened the door to the Goldwater scholarship, which gave me a leg up in my applications to graduate schools," he added.

"Michael's early start as a beginning sophomore and his involvement in the Honors College allowed him to get into a much more in-depth research project than he would ever have been able to attain otherwise," Boley said.

"His commitment to scientific research throughout his academic career helped him earn these two (Goldwater and Phi Kappa Phi) prestigious national fellowships," Boley added. "This speaks well of the high quality preparation we as faculty provide for our individual majors within the physics department."

Michael is the fourth of five children born to George and Carol Baxa of Aledo, a family with strong ties to WIU.

"My parents met at freshman orientation at WIU," Baxa said. "My elder sister Angela, and my next older brother Thomas both graduated from Western, and my little sister Krista will be starting at WIU next fall as a freshman."

His sister Angela (Sheese) was also an Honors College student, and her husband James Sheese, a WIU alumnus, both teach in the Moline school system. Michael's mother is a teacher in Davenport, IA; and his father is an engineering supervisor at Bucher Hydraulics, an elevator and escalator company.

This summer, Baxa will work with a professor at the both the University of Chicago and at the Fermilab National Accelerator Laboratory in suburban Batavia. He will begin his five-year graduate studies program at the University of Chicago in the fall, when he will narrow his research focus to one of his interests, including theoretical particle physics, experimental particle physics, biophysics or condensed matter physics.

"I am unsure as to whether I will teach and conduct research, or research full-time," Baxa said. "Much of that will depend on what area of physics I choose to research. I recently spoke with a professor from the Air Force Institute of Technology about research with the Department of Defense, which is a route that I am still considering as well."

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