Two Juniors Recognized by Goldwater Scholarship Program
Issue   |   Wed, 04/30/2014 - 01:23

Juniors Donna Leet and Xiaoling Yu have been honored by the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship program, which supports undergraduate students studying mathematics, science and engineering. Leet, a biology and French double major, has received one of this year’s Goldwater Scholarships. Yu, a biochemistry and biophysics major, received an honorable mention.

Both come from families of scientists, and both are pre-med students interested in conducting biomedical research.

Leet said her passion for the sciences started young, and was kindled by her geologist father and engineer mother.

“My interest in biomedical research began as a simple desire to understand why our bodies ail and how ailments can be mitigated,” she wrote in her application.

Leet said her interest in biology solidified over the past two summers, when she interned with biologist Jesse Bloom at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in her hometown of Seattle. In the Bloom Lab, Leet studied the molecular biology and evolution of HIV and influenza.

“Now looking back on my two summers in the Bloom Lab, one of the most important things I’ve learned is that research often results in failure,” she wrote. “But the small success that come occasionally have the potential to fundamentally alter the ways we diagnose, treat and cure disease.”

Although the internship at the Bloom Lab stoked her interest in HIV research, Leet said that her coursework at Amherst has also led her to discover other academic passions.

“I’m taking genetic analysis right now with Professor Goutte, and learning how little mutations and genes that seem benign can lead to cancer, so I could also see myself going into oncology research,” she said.

Leet also discovered her interest in French while at Amherst, and decided to declare a second major after spending her fall semester abroad in Paris.

“Spending an extended period of time outside the United States gave me more insight into the potential of international collaboration and research, which I will apply to my future endeavors in the sciences,” she wrote in her application.

When not in the lab, Leet spends her time playing for the college’s varsity softball team.

“Softball is definitely a big part of my life here, and it’s definitely challenging to balance being on a team, being on the pre-med track, having two majors and going abroad,” she said. “But I realized by doing it that it’s definitely possible.”

After Amherst, Leet says she is thinking of applying to an M.D.-Ph.D. program and continuing to conduct biomedical research.

As a Goldwater Scholar, Leet is one of 283 undergraduates who have been selected to receive the scholarship for the coming academic year. The winners were selected from a field of 1,166 nominees nationwide, and will receive up to $7,500 per year to help cover the costs of tuition, fees, books and room and board for one to two years.

Like Leet, Yu said she has also been interested in the sciences since childhood. Yu’s father is also a geologist, and she recalled discovering an interest in science while visiting him in his lab.

“It’s really cool to think about how the smallest things, like genes and molecules, can have such a large effect on everyday life,” she said.

Yu said that after high school, she was eager to combine her interests in biology and chemistry in the biochemistry and biophysics major.

“I’ve always been interested in biochemistry, but then I also have a particular interest in genetics, so I some day hope to be able to combine the two,” she said.

Yu has spent her summers conducting research at Amherst and UMass. Last summer, she received the Howard Hughes Fellowship to work in the lab of Associate Professor of Chemistry Anthony Bishop.

“To me, research is a gateway to further scientific understanding and better the world,” she wrote in her application.

At Amherst, Yu has worked as a teaching assistant in a variety of science classes, including biology and chemistry. She is also the co-president of the Asian Culture House and co-president of the badminton club.

Next year, she plans to write an honors thesis in a biochemistry lab and work on applying to medical school. She says that eventually she is interested in pursuing an M.D.-Ph.D.