STEM students receive prestigious scholarships

JESSICA ZHOU, Evergreen reporter

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Three WSU juniors, Regents scholars in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), have won nationally competitive $7,500 Barry M. Goldwater Scholarships for 2017-18.

The students make up three of the five Washington residents selected as Goldwater recipients in the nation. The other two students attend Cornell University and Dartmouth College. All three pointed to an early background in STEM as part of their decision to pursue their respective majors and fields of research.

Amelia Brown, who comes from a family of engineers, said she always had an interest in STEM. She entered WSU undecided, stuck between pursuing physics or materials science and engineering (MSE).

Brown was most interested in her science courses in school, so science or engineering seemed most natural to her, and she ultimately chose MSE. The research group she now works with focuses on the properties of materials.

“I went with MSE because I had a lot of fun in my engineering courses,” Brown said. “I enjoy the practical side of engineering, making something tangible.”

When Julianna Brutman, a neuroscience major, was a junior in high school, she took an introductory biotechnology course with a culminating independent research project.

During her preliminary research, she said she found an article in Nature, an international science journal, titled, “Neuroscience: In their nurture,” by Lizzie Buchan, which discussed research on the relationship between maternal care and subsequent offspring behavior.

“The paper outlined how varying types of maternal care appeared to affect genetic expression of systems that influence stress regulation,” Brutman said. “I was baffled to understand that this was not genetically predetermined, but rather an effect of environmental influence on the genome referred to as an epigenetic change.”

This piqued her interest in epigenetics, or non-genetic influences on gene expression, and related topics. She found studies linking epigenetic changes to autism, Alzheimer’s disease, In-Vitro Fertilization, transgenerational epigenetic changes and the epigenetic effects of environmental chemicals on reproduction.

Brutman presented her findings at the Northwest Association for Biomedical Research’s Student Bio Expo and won first place for her research project.

“My fascination with epigenetics has continued to this day, and not surprisingly, epigenetics research has become instrumental in many disciplines,” Brutman said. “Presently, I am investigating the role of epigenetic factors in the hypothalamus during the onset of obesity.”

Keesha Matz, a microbiology major, had a similar start in scientific research during high school, through a molecular genetics class.

“I was very intrigued by what I was learning and the next year, I took the advanced version of the class where I got to conduct my own research project,” she said. “This was a project looking at DNA methylation patterns and how those relate to obesity.”

Matz enjoyed having the freedom to conduct experiments that investigated novel things, and the experience of presenting her research at various conferences.

She became involved in research during her freshman year, working in a virology lab studying Nipah virus, which causes Lyme disease. Matz now works in an immunology lab studying how Nipah virus evades the innate immune response, the body’s first line of defense against a viral infection.

“I really enjoy scientific research because I want to help people through the development of new treatments and drugs for infectious diseases,” she said. “The ideal job in the future would be something like working for the World Health Organization.”

According to the National Girls Collaborative Project, women receive more than half of all bachelor’s degrees in biological sciences, but fewer in computer sciences at 17.9 percent, engineering at 19.3 percent, physical sciences at 39 percent and mathematics at 43.1 percent.

“Unfortunately, as you probably know, there are very few of us,” Brown said of female engineers. “Computer engineering, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering are still pretty low in women. From what I’ve seen, chemical engineering is getting more equal though.”

Brown is a peer mentor and grader for Innovation in Design, or Engineering 120. She said the diverse teaching staff helps with the retention of underrepresented students, as Engineering 120 is one of the first engineering courses freshmen take.

“It shows them that it’s not just a boys’ club and that people from all backgrounds can find a home in the department,” Brown said. “I personally think that being conscious of who is teaching these introductory courses is very important to establishing an inclusive atmosphere.”

According to the WSU Society of Women Engineers, engineering remains one of the most segregated fields, with women making up approximately 15 percent of certified engineering students at WSU, in line with the national average.