Published: April 6, 2021

CU Boulder students Anna McTigue and Spencer Hurt are among only 410 college students from across the United States in 2021 to be awarded Goldwater Scholarships, which reward juniors and seniors who are actively conducting research in math, science and engineering.

McTigue, a junior from Colorado Springs majoring in molecular, cellular and developmental biology and neuroscience; and Hurt, a junior from Fruita, Colorado, majoring in astrophysics; join 44 previous CU Boulder Goldwater Scholars and will receive up to $7,500 for the 2021–22 academic year.

“Spencer and Anna's impressive research accomplishments are a testament to the strong faculty/student mentoring relationships on our campus," said Deborah Viles, director of CU Boulder's Office of Top Scholarships. “Spencer and Anna demonstrate innovation and collaboration in their research projects even during the challenges of COVID. We’re very proud to have them represent CU.”

Spencer HurtSpencer Hurt


“I began my first year of college without any experience in astrophysics or research. However, I enrolled in an astronomy class out of curiosity, and it wasn't long until we were spending nights in the campus observatory. Whether staying up until four in the morning to image nebulae and galaxies or devising plans to capture a planet passing between us and its host star, I quickly realized I wanted to pursue a career in astrophysics.

“My research utilizes telescopes and observational data to detect and characterize planetary systems. This includes searching for exoplanets and brown dwarfs using radial velocities, transits and direct imaging. I also use radio telescopes to image and model circumstellar debris disks, the remnants of planet formation. With these observations, we can conduct "planetary archaeology" and piece together a system's dynamical history.

“Each discovery of a world beyond ours is thrilling on its own; however, as we uncover a more complete picture of the broader exoplanet population, we also begin to better understand the processes at play during planet formation and evolution. Ultimately, this helps us better understand the origins of our Solar System and life on Earth while exploring the prospects for habitability elsewhere in the universe.”

Future plans

“After finishing my undergraduate degree, I plan to go on to graduate school and pursue my PhD in astrophysics. Long term, I hope to work in academia and continue research on exoplanets and circumstellar disks.”


“My mentors have been incredibly supportive, both in and out of research. Dr. Sam Quinn (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics), Dr. BJ Fulton (NASA Exoplanet Science Institute) and Dr. Meredith MacGregor (CU Boulder) all have played a critical role in developing my research interests while giving me opportunities to publish and work with exciting data.

“I would not have received a Goldwater Scholarship without the guidance of Deborah Viles and Anne Dougherty, who facilitate the application process here at CU Boulder.”

Anna McTigueAnna McTigue


“I began working in Zoe Donaldson’s lab in January 2020 after reading about her research online. We study the neurobiology behind romantic (pair) bonding in the monogamous prairie vole. The prospect of using molecular techniques in neuroscience to study such an important human-relevant behavior really appealed to me.

“I am very interested in the mechanisms of disease and mental illness in the brain, and this lab has given me the opportunity to actually investigate an important aspect of mental health.”

Future plans

“I hope to begin my PhD in molecular neuroscience with the plan to research molecular mechanisms of disease in the brain.”


“Zoe Donaldson (PI) and Kathleen Murphy (PhD student) have been incredibly supportive mentors for me in this process. I am grateful for their advice and guidance doing research and would like to acknowledge their important role in my continuing development as a scientist.”

Applying for the Goldwater Scholarship

Deborah Viles, director of the Office of Top Scholarships, encourages math, science and engineering students with demonstrated research experience to consider applying for the Goldwater Scholarship next year. Contact Viles and visit the Goldwater Scholarship website for more information.

The Goldwater Foundation was established in 1986 in honor of Sen. Barry Goldwater. The scholarship program is designed to foster and encourage outstanding students to pursue research careers in the fields of the natural sciences, engineering and mathematics.