To the legions of chefs and food connoisseurs who admire the curled fronds of the fiddlehead fern, add University of Vermont sophomore biology major Dan Koenemann. Koenemann's admiration isn't exactly culinary, though. As part of a U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded project designed to measure the genetic resiliency of the fiddlehead — as more and more of the plants are picked by food lovers — Koenemann conducted a special kind of DNA analysis on the fern variety called AFLP (Amplified Fragment Length Polymorphism).
The research, combined with an essay he wrote about the significance of a larger project his work contributed to, his 4.0 average and three glowing letters of recommendation won Koenemann a prestigious Goldwater Scholarship in the spring of 2008, awarded to the country's top college science and math students.
While others enthusiastically heap on the compliments — plant biology professor Dave Barrington describes him as "brilliant, passionate and possessed of remarkable self-discipline" — Koenemann, naturally modest, would prefer to focus on the environment that helped him succeed.
Three years ago, UVM's Honors College launched a university-wide outreach effort to encourage students to compete for national and international awards and to support and mentor them during the application process.
"They definitely got the word out," Koenemann said. Once he expressed interest, Koenemann was assigned a supportive faculty mentor who spent months helping him hone his application.
Since 2005, UVM students have won a total of ten prestigious and highly competitive awards, including Fulbright, Truman, Madison and Udall Scholarships, in addition to the Goldwater.
That performance helped UVM land the #60 spot on Forbes magazine's list of the top 127 national universities in the country, based on measures like the ratio of award recipients to total enrollment.