TAMPA — Jean Weatherwax walked into class, and applause broke out.
A day earlier, the University of South Florida announced that Weatherwax, 22, had been awarded the school's first ever prestigious Marshall Scholarship — which will pay for her to study in London for two years.
The unassuming electrical engineering student blushed. She didn't expect a big hoopla over the award. Heck, she didn't even expect to get it.
That's Weatherwax, say those close to her. Humble is an understatement.
Ask her about the award, and she won't tell you that she's one of just a few dozen American college students who receive it each year — in honor of Gen. George C. Marshall's efforts to help rebuild Europe after World War II. Instead, she'll give credit to her teachers, her mentor, her research team, her parents, even USF itself.
"I think it must be good for the university," Weatherwax said. "They must get some publicity and recognition out of it."
She won't mention that this year she also won a Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, the country's highest honor for science undergraduates. Or that last summer she interned at a NASA research center in California.
"It's a little weird to be called and interviewed," Weatherwax said, "Because I don't feel that special."
The girl from Niceville, Fla., will next fall study at the Imperial College London with Dr. Pantelis Georgiou, whose biomedical research Weatherwax has admired from afar. She wants to help him as he develops the first artificial pancreas for treating Type 1 diabetes.
It's a personal pursuit for Weatherwax, whose father, Lee, has the disease. Her parents didn't know that was the plan until the award was announced.
"It's very sweet," said Lee Weatherwax, who works for Boeing in Charleston, S.C. Like his daughter, he deflected the spotlight. "I may benefit from possible future endeavors she works on. … But I think she's looking more bigger-picture, wanting to help a lot of people."
Her faculty mentor, USF engineering professor Stephen Saddow, said it's that care for others that sets Weatherwax apart. Plus, her humility.
"There are a lot of smart people who are arrogant or conceited," he said. "The fact that she doesn't take herself too seriously is one of her strengths."
Weatherwax came to Saddow after interviewing for the Marshall Scholarship, sure that she didn't get it. Saddow doubted that was true.
He wasn't surprised to find out he was right. "She just has a really intense desire to learn," he said.
She has been that way since she was born: curious and inquisitive, said Weatherwax's mother, Lisa, a freelance journalist. As a child, Weatherwax's favorite segment on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was the "how stuff works" bit. She never shied away from math problems.
"Her academic achievements and her engineering achievements in the research fields are stunning," her mother said. "But as her mother, what I'm most impressed by is, she's just got a heart of gold."
Weatherwax volunteers with Big Brothers Big Sisters. One of her proudest days was when her "little sister" suddenly showed an interest in learning, bringing books from the library to read together.
As a sophomore, she also started a student organization aimed at getting minority middle school students excited about studying science, math or engineering.
When she finishes her studies, she wants to keep researching — maybe someday have her own lab to find new medical devices to help people who are suffering.
"I just hope to make a small impact," she said.
Kim Wilmath can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813-226-3337.