Two UConn students stand among the nation’s Goldwater Scholars

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The UConn sign is illuminated with blue nights at night during a February snowfall. Two UConn students received the Barry Goldwater Scholarship, a scholarship celebrating exceptional undergraduate researchers in natural science, mathematics or engineering. Photo by Kevin Lindstrom/The Daily Campus

The Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation named two University of Connecticut students 2021 Goldwater Scholars, an honor established by Congress in 1986 to celebrate exceptional undergraduate researchers in natural science, mathematics or engineering, in the name of the late Arizona senator.  

Katherine Lee, a sixth-semester structural biology and biophysics major, and Seema Patel, a sixth-semester molecular and cell biology major, are two of just 410 award recipients in the United States.  

“The mission of the Goldwater program is straightforward – to identify and support college sophomores and juniors who show exceptional promise of becoming this Nation’s next generation of natural sciences, mathematics and engineering research leaders,” the Goldwater Foundation says on its website. “[Goldwater reviewers] seek to identify undergraduates who demonstrate a passion for doing research and who exhibit the creative spark that will make them leaders in their fields.” 

According to the Goldwater Foundation, 1,256 students nominated by 438 colleges and universities competed for the award.  

Patel recalled staring at her computer screen, anxiously waiting for the scholarship results to be released at midnight.  

“I was very nervous because I wanted to not only do well for myself, but I wanted to represent my lab and UConn at a national level. The excitement and feelings of accomplishment sank in about 2 to 3 days later when I received congratulatory emails from my letter writers and mentors,” Patel said, “I credit a large part of my success to my incredible mentors who have generously provided their support and time.” 

Patel currently works at the Hadden Lab at the UConn School of Pharmacy to develop chemotherapy that prevents drug resistance and toxic side effects. She said that drug resistance is one of the main reasons for cancer relapse in chemotherapy treatment. Using an ovarian cancer cell model, Patel tests inhibitors of the DNA repair mechanism and assesses their efficiency for chemotherapy.  

According to UConn Today, Lee works to improve Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis and therapeutics in Associate Professor of Molecular and Cell Biology Eric May’s laboratory. Alzheimer’s patients experience a build-up of the tau protein in their brains which damages healthy cells. Lee researches the binding affinities of tau protein antibodies and tau protein communication networks to learn how mutations influence protein dynamics.  

“Research comes with thrilling highs but also long periods of discipline in which you must be patient and keep doing the silent work that may not appear in a journal, but is required for you to get there. The Goldwater Scholarship has been an amazing affirmation that I am on the right track and that scientific research is where I belong,” Lee said to UConn Today. “I am beyond grateful for receiving the Goldwater Scholarship and to the many people who have supported me to make this possible.” 

Rowena Grainger, the Goldwater Campus Representative for UConn in charge of aiding students through the rigorous nomination and application process, said that she is very proud of Lee and Patel.  

“Having two UConn students selected for one of the nation’s most competitive scholarships is a testament to the quality of our undergraduate research experience,” Grainger told UConn Today. “Katherine and Seema displayed their intellectual curiosity, commitment to a research career and have already contributed to their fields. I am immensely proud of them and look forward to seeing the impact of their discoveries in the years to come.” 

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