Goldwater Scholarship has MTSU student jumping for...

Goldwater Scholarship has MTSU student jumping for joy

MTSU student Kirsten Cunningham vividly recalls the exact moment she learned she had received a prestigious Goldwater Scholarship. People working with and around her in the Science Building remember it, too.

“It was 11 a.m. and I was in the middle of an organic chemistry lab,” Cunningham said, recalling reading the email. “I started jumping up and down and I ran out the door to tell my mentors (Drs. David Nelson and Preston MacDougall).”

MTSU student Kirsten Cunningham received a Goldwater Scholarship.

MTSU junior Kirsten Cunningham, left, explains her biochemistry research to Lucy Watson this spring during the university’s Scholars Day in the Student Union Ballroom. Cunningham has received a Goldwater Scholarship to assist with her studies. (MTSU photo by Andy Heidt)

A Goldwater Scholarship, named for the late U.S. senator and 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry M. Goldwater, is something to be excited about: it’s worth up to $7,500.

Congress established the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation in 1986 to serve as a living memorial to honor the lifetime work of Goldwater, who served his country 56 years as a soldier and statesman, including 30 years as a senator.

The scholarship announcement capped a week where Cunningham, 26, a junior from Murfreesboro by way of Palmer, Alaska, also received a first-place recognition in a College of Basic and Applied Sciences presentation.

“Overall, it was a wonderful week,” she said.

Cunningham, who now has dual majors in biology and chemistry, said the latest development “unlocks all doors and breaks the glass ceiling for me. I will be the first in my family to get a Ph.D.”

Her research involves host pathogen interactions.

“This will allow me to explore myself academically in ways I have otherwise been unable,” she added. “I am a single mom. I work 20 to 30 hours a week to pay for child care. With this scholarship, I’ll be able to spend more time with my son and spend more time on my research.”

Alex Cunningham, 8, will be a third-grader when school resumes in August.

Kirsten Cunningham

Kirsten Cunningham

Cunningham’s other assistance has come from a Pell Grant and a one-time $4,000 scholarship from the June Anderson Center for Women and Nontraditional Students. She’ll also make use of an MTSU Undergraduate Research Experience and Creative Activity grant this summer, just as she did in 2016.

While living in Alaska, Cunningham, a prodigy, studied music and American sign language at a community college as a 10-year-old.

“Before I got into science, music was my passion,” she said. “It helps me — as kind of an outlet — do what I want to do with science. I am a singer and flute player. Music allows me to express myself artistically.”

After high school, community college and the birth of her son, Cunningham took a hiatus from education and became an insurance agent.

“I was good at it, but it was never my calling,” she said of her insurance career. “I wanted to reinvent myself, and everything has opened up for me.”

Her interests also include photography, “anything in the lab,” chess, and hiking at Fall Creek Falls State Park.

Cunningham is MTSU’s first Goldwater winner since Daniel Murphy received the award in 2013, though several MTSU students received honorable mentions. For a list of all the honorees, visit

Laura Clippard of the University Honors College, through the Undergraduate Fellowship Office, assisted Cunningham and the other recipients with their applications. For more information, call 615-898-5464 or email

— Randy Weiler (