News & Recipients

Two Non-traditional Students Achieve First for USF College of Engineering as 2024 Barry M. Goldwater Scholars

keegan and daniela

When Michael Cai-Wang, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of South Florida (USF), welcomed undergraduate students Keegan Suero and Daniela Zamora-Alviarez to work as part of the NanoMechanics, NanoMaterials, NanoManufacturing lab (NM3L) in the College of Engineering, he never dreamed the two non-traditional transfer students would both become Goldwater scholars one day.

Yet, with guidance from Professor Cai-Wang and the USF Office of National Scholars (ONS), Keegan and Daniela have set a new highwater mark for undergraduate research excellence at USF by becoming the first twin Goldwater scholarship recipients from a single research group.

With their selection for the nation’s most prestigious award for excellence in undergraduate research, they join 21 alumni of Goldwater scholarship recipients from USF. Students work under the guidance of Sayandeb Basu, director of ONS, in collaboration with their faculty mentors to prepare their Goldwater Scholarships applications. Students must be nominated by the institution to apply nationally.  


Keegan and Daniela, both juniors, are among 438 scholars chosen out of over 1,300 applicants from 446 US institutions this year. Their accomplishments as 2024 Goldwater scholarship recipients are made even more remarkable by their respective journeys. 


As a DACA recipient, Daniela had to wait nearly a decade after graduating as her high school salutatorian with a near-perfect SAT score before she could pursue post-secondary education. She was later naturalized as a US citizen and eventually qualified for college financial aid to attend USF. In the intervening decade, she joined an immigrant activist group called CHISPAS, which traveled to Washington DC to advocate for college tuition equity for undocumented students, while attending Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida. While there, she taught herself everything from 3D printing to coding, which she uses now in her research.

Meanwhile, half a state away, Keegan attended Hillsborough Community College part-time and developed an interest in engineering because of his passion for motorsports. He simultaneously worked in the retail and the fast-food industry.

“We laugh at NM3L that my aptitude for fabricating nanostructures arises from my time making sandwiches,” joked Keegan.

Though their education journeys would classify Keegan and Daniela as non-traditional students, once Daniela and Keegan arrived at USF, they were both determined to utilize the university’s undergraduate research opportunities to make the most of their college experiences. 

“ONS has mentored many non-traditional students and transfer students in its history. We pride ourselves in serving the diverse student body at USF,” says Basu. 

Both Keegan and Daniela are supported by NSF funded S-STEM scholarships. 

“Two communities I joined at USF — the NSF S-STEM cohort, and USF’s Global Leaders Outreach for a Better Environment (GLOBE) — are shaping my path,” said Daniela. She added “The former has given me skills in financial literacy, exposed me to undergraduate research, scholarships, national conferences, and REUs. I presented my research at the first-ever AAAS National S-STEM Conference in Washington, D.C.”

Basu first recruited Daniela for the 2024 Goldwater Scholarship competition while presenting on connecting research and professional development to the S-STEM cohort. Soon after Daniela advocated for Keegan as a promising candidate and introduced him and Basu.


Daniela and Keegan’s work in NM3L has positioned them to take their research interests to the next level. 

Daniela dreams of making an impact in renewable hydrogen-fuel technology. She aspires to discover and fabricate catalytic materials that enhance water-splitting to make hydrogen in fuel cells via the so-called Hydrogen Evolution Reaction. 

“I am motivated to research renewables by the climate anxiety and sea-level rise, companions of my childhood on Florida’s east coast.” 

Daniela is exploring complementary approaches to synthesize two-dimensional catalytic nanomaterials — bottom-up methods she perfected at a Research Experience for Undergraduates internship at Binghamton University to create layered nanomaterials for enhanced hydrogen adsorption, as well as top-down methods to mechanically exfoliate nanometer scale sheets of graphene at NM3L. At the nanoscale, two-dimensional materials, only a few atoms thick, open new vistas in surface chemistry for catalysis.

Daniela was recently awarded a grant from Sigma Xi, the preeminent international research honor society to train at USF’s Nanotechnology Research and Education Center to support her research.


For his part, Keegan innovates precision shaping of nanoparticles via mechanical stresses in his research. He is motivated by the concept of up-scaling non-toxic and environmentally friendly nanomanufacturing methods to synthesize nanometallic materials for chemo-sensing in space for future NASA missions. 

Keegan interned at NASA-Goddard, and the skills he acquired while there helped him to contribute to building a Uniaxial Compression Device at NM3L which earned him second authorship on a prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences-Nexus journal article. 

“Interning at NASA and traveling to Italy to do research made a difference to my approach to education and toward myself,” Keegan shared.

Reflecting on Keegan and Daniela’s selection as Goldwater Scholars his year, Basu said:

“USF has a proud tradition of producing Goldwater scholars, but we are excited to celebrate two outstanding recipients from one research lab. This accomplishment speaks to the importance of the research being done and to the opportunities undergraduate students interested in research can find here at USF. At the Office of National Scholars, we are proud to mentor students like Daniela and Keegan and we can't wait to see where the opportunities afforded by the Goldwater scholarship take them next.”