Thursday, April 20, 2023

University of Iowa third-year student Jeff Leiberton was sitting in his 9:30 a.m. electricity and magnetism class when he received a message from the university’s director of scholar development, Kelly Thornburg.

“The email said I could officially state that I was a Goldwater Scholar,” says Leiberton. “I was so excited that I couldn’t focus on class. It became the longest lecture I have ever sat through.”

A native of West Des Moines, Iowa, Leiberton is Iowa’s 63rd Goldwater Scholar and one of 413 selected nationwide in this year’s class from more than 5,000 applicants.

The Goldwater Scholarship is the premier undergraduate scholarship for students pursuing careers in mathematics, natural sciences, and engineering. The scholarship eclipsed 10,000 total recipients in 2023.

Leiberton’s research focus is theoretical physics, which uses mathematical models and abstractions to understand, explain, and predict natural phenomena, such as string theory, dark matter, and quantum technologies. Specifically, his research focuses on the theoretical development and realization of condensed matter systems for use in quantum technologies such as quantum computers.

Leiberton studies diamonds that harbor Nitrogen-Vacancy (NV) centers, which can be altered to act like information processors in a computer. However, because this research is still in the early stages, Leiberton is looking for ways to process this information more efficiently. 

Leiberton is the 15th Goldwater Scholar from Iowa’s Department of  Physics and Astronomy, which is home to one of the nation’s leading space physics programs. 

“It’s cool to think how my professors are leading research in the field,” says Leiberton. “I remember when I was a freshman, my professor, Allison Jaynes, ended class early because she had to go sit in on a NASA call. I thought that was the coolest thing and I went home and told my roommate about it.”

Not only are the department’s faculty members involved in research, but every undergraduate has an opportunity to take part in research of their choice.

Leiberton says assistant professor Casey DeRoo and research advisor Denis Candido have had the biggest impact on his undergraduate career. DeRoo taught his first-year astronomy courses, while Candido began working with Leiberton in January 2022 when Leiberton enrolled in his Intermediate Mechanics course.

“Professor Candido has inspired me to pursue condensed matter physics and helped me develop the skills that I need to continue this work in the future,” says Leiberton.

While Leiberton had always had an interest in mathematics, Candido showed him different ways to apply math within theoretical physics. 

“Jeff always showed a great interest and passion for both Mathematics and theoretical physics,” says Candido, “Tackling many problems in condensed matter systems requires a strong mathematical foundation. Accordingly, I foresaw his interests would align with theoretical research on condensed matter.”

While a little bit of a surprise given how incredibly competitive the scholarship is, Candido was very confident in Leiberton. 

“I was very happy to see him named a Goldwater Scholar. He definitely deserves it,” Candido added. “I strongly believed he would be awarded considering his impressive CV, and the solid research project we put together.”

After he graduates, Leiberton plans to pursue a PhD in theoretical physics and hopes to one day help answer questions at the forefront of the field. 

“I’m hoping that we can make progress toward developing a fully functional quantum computer,” says Leiberton. “Such a computer would have major implications for everybody on the planet, and a lot of new and exciting science would result from it.”

Leiberton also was recently awarded an undergraduate fellowship from the Department of Mathematics to join Iowa’s geometry and topology research training group, a project funded by a National Science Foundation Research Training Group grant designed to foster academic growth, competitiveness, and innovation in mathematics. 

Goldwater Scholarship

Each Goldwater scholar annually receives an amount equal to the cost of tuition, mandatory fees, books, and room and board minus the amount of support provided for by other sources, up to a maximum of $7,500. Scholars who receive the award as second-year students can expect to receive support for a maximum of two years (four semesters) or until graduation, if sooner. Scholars who receive the award as third-year students can expect to receive support for a maximum of one year (two semesters) or until graduation, if sooner.

Students who are interested in applying for the Goldwater Scholarship should contact the Office of Scholar Development at