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  • Katherine Connor

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  • Katherine Connor

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Undergraduate Researchers Earn Goldwater Scholarship

Three UC San Diego undergraduate students with impressive academic and research credentials were selected to receive the Goldwater Scholarship, designed to foster and encourage outstanding students to pursue research careers in the fields of the natural sciences, engineering and mathematics. The Goldwater Scholarship, which provides students up to $7,500 toward tuition, books and fees, is the preeminent undergraduate award of its type in these fields.

The scholarship is named in honor of Senator Barry Goldwater, and this year was administered in partnership with the Department of Defense National Defense Education Programs.

Bioengineering students Aditi Gnanasekar and Claire Zhang, and physics student Mara Casebeer, received the scholarship in recognition of their research contributions and plans to pursue careers in research.

Mara Casebeer

Mara Casebeer.

Mara Casebeer. Photo Courtesy of Mara Casebeer.

Mara Casebeer, a biological physics student with a minor in chemistry, has been captivated by the power of physics since high school.

“My junior year of high school I had an amazing physics teacher who showed me everything that physics could do,” she said. “We had one lab where we had to calculate the angle we needed to release a ball in order to get it to land in a basket. On the first try, based off our calculations, we got it right in the basket, nothing but net. And that blew my mind, that simple physics equations can predict what’s happening in the natural world so easily.”

As an undergraduate researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Casebeer now harnesses the power of physics to study how radio frequency cell-to-cell communications and high-frequency electromagnetic waves interact with biological systems. She models how DNA behaves and changes in these high-frequency environments.

After graduating in 2022, Casebeer plans to earn a doctorate in biological physics, and continue conducting research in experimental and computational biophysics. At UC San Diego, Casebeer is also a supplemental physics instructor through the Teaching and Learning Commons, an experience which has affirmed her goal of becoming a professor one day, combining her love of research and teaching.

Outside of research, coursework and teaching, Casebeer is also co-president of the Warren Honor Society, plays intramural soccer and clarinet in the chamber ensemble and is part of the Undergraduate Women in Physics organization.

Her advice to current and future students?

“Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there in terms of research‒it can never hurt to talk to a professor after class about their research, or email them. It can be really intimidating but if it’s something you’re passionate about it’ll be worth it.”

Aditi Gnanasekar

Aditi Gnanasekar.

Aditi Gnanasekar. Photo Courtesy of Aditi Gnanasekar.

Aditi Gnanasekar was interested in biology, computer science and technology from an early age, but was not sure how to combine all three fields until she discovered the Bioengineering: Biotechnology major at UC San Diego.

“There is definitely a lot of computation within the biotech track, but it also has a focus on chemical engineering concepts and biomolecular techniques as well, so it’s the perfect blend of those disciplines,” said Gnanasekar.

She has applied her bioengineering know-how as an undergraduate researcher in the lab of Professor Weg Ongkeko at the UC San Diego School of Medicine, analyzing RNA sequences to extract information on immune cell expression, ultimately working toward characterizing cancers on the molecular level.

“Recently, I’ve been working on research into the intratumor microbiome, and specific microbes that are characterized in specific tumors,” Gnanasekar said. “We think it’s pretty interesting that there are microbes that are only present in certain tumors, and think they could play a critical role in determining the clinical outcome of cancer.”

After earning her bachelor’s degree, Gnanasekar plans to pursue an M.D./Ph.D., enabling her to continue this type of research while also working hands-on with patients.

In addition to earning the Goldwater Scholarship, Gnanasekar is also one of just 11 Jacobs School of Engineering students in the class of 2022 to receive the prestigious Jacobs School Scholar award, supported by school namesakes Dr. Irwin and Joan Jacobs. Jacobs Scholars are selected for demonstrated academic achievement, leadership, commitment to community, and innovative potential, and become a close community of scholars during their undergraduate years.

Outside of the classroom, Gnanasekar played intramural sports, sung in a capella groups, and volunteered with UC San Diego StRIVE, assisting adults with disabilities. But research was her main passion.

“My lab is really important—they’re like a second family to me.”

She advises students interested in research to stick with it, even when the going gets tough.

“One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from doing scientific research and being part of a lab is being really patient,” she said. “Research is hard and you need to be persistent—you can't expect to get published right away or for your experiments to work out your way. A lot of times experiments will fail; that's totally expected and fine. And even if they do fail, that doesn't mean the research was useless or you didn't get anything out of it. That information is still very important.”

Claire Zhang

Claire Zhang.

Claire Zhang. Photo Courtesy of Claire Zhang.

As a young student, Claire Zhang was intrigued by both patient-facing clinical medicine and the technical innovations required to better manage disease. An early hands-on introduction to biomedical research solidified her desire to do both, and helped her see a path to do so.

Now a bioengineering student at UC San Diego, Zhang plans to earn an M.D./Ph.D. after graduation, with a goal of improving computational precision medicine by unifying molecular, cellular and physiological data as a physician scientist. She got a taste for what this can look like as an undergraduate researcher in the lab of Dr. Kevin King, from the Departments of Medicine and Bioengineering. Zhang used tools like single-cell RNA sequencing to study diseases in which the immune system becomes activated even though there is no infection, including heart attacks.

“Dr. King has been an incredible role model and crucial source of support and mentorship over the past two years, and inspired my interest in pursuing a physician-scientist career myself,” said Zhang.

She hopes to put the medical and computational skills she’s learning to use to synthesize all the various data points we can learn about an individual‒ from genetics to heart rate to sleep habits‒into actionable information.

“We’ve gotten quite good at drawing conclusions from each of these types of data on their own, but synthesizing information from all of these diverse sources to make holistic personalized predictions about one’s risk for disease, or what drugs will be most effective for someone, could truly revolutionize clinical medicine.”

Like Gnanasekar, Zhang is also a Jacobs School Scholar, one of the 11 Jacobs School of Engineering students in the class of 2022 to receive the prestigious full-ride scholarship award that is supported by school namesakes Dr. Irwin and Joan Jacobs.

In addition to the Jacobs Scholars community and her research, Zhang is involved in the International Health Collective, a student-run nonprofit that operates a monthly free clinic in Tijuana, Mexico, and is a member of the Theta Tau professional engineering fraternity.

Her advice for current and future students?

“Take advantage of opportunities to grow, even (and sometimes especially) if they make you uncomfortable. Apply to that internship that you don’t think you’ll get into, email that professor whose research sounded interesting, try out a few student orgs!”

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