By Gianna Barberia
Only four students can be nominated annually at each institution for the prestigious Barry Goldwater Scholarship. In late February, second-year Max Daniels was one of two students at NU to receive the award.
“It’s a very impressive thing,” said Javed Aslam, professor and senior associate dean of academic affairs at Khoury College of Computer Sciences. “These are extremely difficult to get. It’s a very prestigious honor.”
The scholarship is a national recognition for promising, undergraduate researchers. Aslam said that he was not surprised Daniels was recognized given his academic strengths.
“Literally the first day I met him, he was working on mathematical problems my own PhD students were struggling with and presenting PhD-level research,” Aslam said. “It was stunning. He was working on things way beyond high school- and undergraduate-level mathematics.”
Aslam said he was introduced to Daniels by Virgil Pavlu, an associate teaching professor at Khoury College. Professor Pavlu was Daniels’ Discrete Math for Computer Science professor during the fall of his freshman year and said he immediately recognized his potential.
“As we started to talk more outside the course curriculum, it became clear that most of the course was trivial to him, so we looked at difficult problems, such as the ones given at Math Olympiads,” Pavlu said.
From there, Daniels and Pavlu began meeting outside of course office hours, creating an informal math seminar in the computer science program to work on problems that require more significant intellectual effort.
“He was unbelievably talented for an undergraduate in the first year, without doubt one of the best I have seen in my 12+ years of teaching,” Pavlu added. “He could easily be in a Master’s program and, within a year or two, start a PhD.”
Daniels specifically cited three of Pavlu’s classes as being particularly valuable to him academically: Discrete Structures, Machine Learning and Algorithms.
Daniels’ award-winning research focuses mainly on reconstructing images with missing information. He used MRI machines as an example — they generate images of the body by measuring one piece of the images at a time. These algorithms allow doctors to measure just a few of the image pieces to increase efficiency.
“In my work, we use machine learning to design a model of images from a dataset, and the model helps fill in missing pieces,” Daniels said.
Daniels found out that he was awarded the Barry Goldwater Scholarship from his mom while at home taking online classes. She saw the announcement on Facebook and tried to tell him while he was taking a Zoom class. Although he couldn’t celebrate until after his class ended, the news has finally settled in.
“I was really excited to have recognition,” Daniels said. “It’s a good step toward my career.”
Daniels’ ambition and drive to learn is a huge factor in his successes. When he was younger, he taught himself programming by hacking Pokémon games on the Nintendo. Since then, he’s been his own number one advocate, seeking out opportunities to continue to learn and grow. He emphasized that students shouldn’t be scared to speak up to professors to receive more educational and research opportunities.
“A lot of people hesitate to reach out and worry about actually talking to their professors,” Daniels said.
Although he said it can be intimidating to do as a freshman, he said it’s the best way to make connections and further your academic interests.
“It’s absolutely something I recommend.”