Zachary Withers


Zachary (Zach) Withers, a Judy Genshaft Honors College student, was awarded a 2020 Barry M. Goldwater scholarship in recognition of his outstanding contributions to research at the interface of optics and condensed matter physics and for his passionate commitment to improving societal outcomes in the United States and developing nations as a scientist and educator of the future.

Zach credits his special attention to mentoring of undergraduates in his future career to the high-touch mentoring he himself has received, both in his last year of high school and from Dr. Dmitry Voronine in the Department of Physics at the Univerity of South Florida (USF). In Zach’s own words, “Had an inspiring high school teacher not challenged me with a gift of David J. Griffiths’ Electricity & Magnetism text, at a time when a fractured ankle would incapacitate me from baseball, I would probably have recuperated in the company of video games, and may have never become a researcher.”  That dilapidated copy of Griffiths, as this text is fondly referred to by generations of physics undergraduates all over the world, birthed a fascination with electromagnetic waves and optics, an area of physics that would later become Zach’s wheelhouse in undergraduate research. Fortuitously for Zach, Dmitry Voronine, who is an expert in laser science and condensed matter physics, had just joined USF’s Physics department in 2018, Zach’s freshman year, and was actively looking to recruit students for his lab.

After an initial six-months in learning computational tools and gaining knowledge and skills in quantum optics from Dr. Voronine, Zach began his maiden research, exploring possibilities to manipulate a property of light called quantum coherence at the microscopic scales to improve the use of light-matter interactions for biomedical applications. This is a burgeoning field and goes by the name quantum phototherapy. Zach’s freshman-year work was already reaching a publishable stage when Dr. Voronine introduced Zach to Dr. Sayandeb Basu, Director of the Office of National Scholarships. Dr. Basu immediately recognized Zach’s potential, and his fit for the Goldwater scholarship, and recruited him to be part of a cohort of potential nominees for the Goldwater Scholarship’s 2020 competition. The Voronine-Withers-Basu partnership has since evolved to become an integral part of Zach’s journey in school. “Dr. Basu was a fantastic mentor throughout this entire process,” says Withers. “He asked the important questions and helped me identify my research trajectory and explain why I am passionate about this work.”

In terms of sheer productivity, Zach has been the most prolific undergraduate researcher at USF’s physics department in the years before and since receiving the Goldwater scholarship. He is a first author on three published articles in nano-optics and has presented his research at three consecutive American Physical Society (APS) March Meetings, the premiere annual conference of the APS in the US.  His work on quantum phototherapy was also highlighted at the Nano-Bio International conference in Tampa in 2019. He also harbors a fascination for proteins in relation to their role in photosynthesis, and concurrently with his research in physics, he held a position in Dr. David Merkler’s biochemistry lab.

Zach’s research now, and in the future, will focus on the interplay of light and matter at the nanoscale.  In Zach’s words, “our ability to control energy, intensity and other properties of light at the nano-scale, has implications for the improvement of semi-conductors and transistor-like devices in future.” Research in this area is also poised to help actualize the first quantum computers which “think in light.”

In addition to research in the Voronine-lab, Zach also participated in an International Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) with USF Professor and Physics Department Chair, Sarath Witanachchi. For this work (funded by the National Science Foundation), a team of eight USF undergraduate students worked with Dr. Witanachchi to research for five months in an effort to create a new renewable energy source. The goal of this technology was to make additional electricity accessible to rural and tribal villages in Africa. After their research, the team traveled to Botswana for testing. The new device concept doubled the power generation capability for several rural villages.

It was during his time in Africa that Zach initiated a project to donate refurbished laptops to two rural schools in Botswana. Upon his return to the US, Zach was in the planning stages to scale the “laptop project” into a more sustainable pipeline for providing educational technologies to these schools with the help of the international philanthropic NGO, Peacework. Zach plans on attending to this project in the future, despite initial setbacks encountered due to COVID-19. Zach was slated to go to Tanzania in the summer of 2020 on a second international REU, and coordinate efforts with Peacework while there to implement the logistics of this project.

Zach has now been accepted and plans to attend a Ph.D. program in physics at Stony Brook University.  Zach credits the intense period of preparation for the Goldwater scholarship, including the meticulous planning and organization of the all-important research essay, to laying the critical foundations for the reflections about a career in research and to helping him envision his research proposal, for which he recently received a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship (GRF).

Research Mentors: Dr. Dmitry Voronine, Dr. Sarath Witanachchi, and Dr. David Merkler (USF)


The Goldwater Scholarship Program, one of the oldest and most prestigious national scholarships in the natural sciences, engineering and mathematics in the United States, seeks to identify and support college sophomores and juniors (by year of graduation) who show exceptional promise of becoming this Nation's next generation of research leaders in these fields. Selected students will receive a stipend for academic and research support for their remaining years as an undergraduate.

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master's and doctoral degrees at accredited United States institutions. Social Sciences such as Anthropology, quantitative sociology, computational social sciences and psychology are also eligible areas of application.