Liane Vásquez-Weber intends to study the creation of computational models on the effects of neurodegenerative diseases.
A Texas Tech University junior has been named a 2021 Goldwater Scholar, the nation's top undergraduate award in science, engineering and mathematics.
With the recognition, Liane (Lee-aw-nee) Vásquez-Weber joins an elite group of Red Raiders. Texas Tech has produced 38 Goldwater Scholars and received 12 Honorable Mentions since the award's inception in 1989, including five scholars in the last six years.
Vásquez-Weber, a computer science major in the Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering with minors in biology and English, intends to study the creation of computational models on the effects of neurodegenerative diseases. She hopes to lay a foundation that can one day improve the lives of dementia patients, specifically in their use of language.
“As a nontraditional, female, minority student in STEM undergraduate education and research, I feel empowered to have been selected as a Goldwater Scholar,” Vásquez-Weber said. “It is surreal to have brought this honor to Texas Tech University and represent all students like me. My selection as a Goldwater Scholar makes the statement that anyone else can also accomplish this, as long as they have grit.
“Receiving the Goldwater Scholarship is a big slap in the face to my imposter syndrome, which is always needed,” she added with a laugh.
The scholarship program honoring Sen. Barry Goldwater was designed to foster and encourage outstanding students to pursue research careers in the fields of the natural sciences, engineering and mathematics. The Goldwater Scholarship is the preeminent undergraduate award of its type in these fields.
A total of 410 scholarships were awarded across the U.S. for the 2021-2022 academic year. From an estimated pool of more than 5,000 college sophomores and juniors, 1,256 natural science, engineering and mathematics students were nominated by 438 academic institutions to compete for the 2021 Goldwater scholarships. Of students who reported, 198 of the Scholars are men, 207 are women and virtually all intend to obtain a doctorate. Fifty-one scholars are mathematics and computer science majors, 291 are majoring in the natural sciences and 68 are majoring in engineering.
“Receiving the Goldwater Scholarship immediately connects me with an innovative, diverse and powerful network of researchers,” Vásquez-Weber said. “I am most looking forward to growing alongside the many other great current, previous and future Goldwater Scholars. In addition, the
Goldwater Scholarship provides funding for the next year of my undergraduate education, for which I am deeply grateful.”
To be eligible, a student must be a full-time sophomore or junior pursuing a degree at an accredited two- or four-year institution of higher education; intend to pursue a research career in a natural science, mathematics or engineering; have a college grade point average of at least a 3.00; and be a U.S. citizen, U.S. national or a permanent resident.
“I am quite proud of Liane's selection as a Goldwater Scholar,” said Wendoli Flores, director of Prestigious External Student Awards. “She has demonstrated that even as a non-traditional student, it is possible to achieve your goals if you are determined and dedicated. The Goldwater competition is always extremely competitive, but Liane stood out as an exceptional scholar. This award will open many doors of opportunity for her as she pursues a career in research.
Vásquez-Weber has spent much of her undergraduate career involved in research. She is involved with the university's Center for the Integration of STEM Education & Research (CISER) and since the fall of 2019 has been working on gut-brain-axis computer modeling in the lab of Amanda M.V. Brown, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences.
The goal of her study was to build a computer network model of the gut-brain-axis – that is, the bidirectional communication between the nervous system branches linking emotional and cognitive centers of the brain with intestinal functions and the gut microbiome. As envisioned, this model would test hypotheses of the vagus nerve's role in efficiently supporting the transit of gut microbial signals to the brain.
Through predictive computational modeling, this ongoing work could one day provide novel insights into the impact of gut microbial disturbances – caused by internal changes (e.g. hormones) or external changes (e.g. diet, medicine) – on outcomes such as mental health.
“Congratulations to Liane on her selection for this prestigious honor,” said Lawrence Schovanec, Texas Tech president. “Receiving a Goldwater Scholarship is a tremendous personal achievement for students, but their success also elevates the reputation of our university and is evidence that our undergraduates are increasingly competitive for major national awards. I want to thank the faculty and staff for providing the supportive and learning environment that helps to develop outstanding students like Liane.”
Since September 2020, Vásquez-Weber has been involved in a grant-funded project with Jason Tham, an assistant professor of technical communication and rhetoric in the Department of English. Vásquez-Weber also is a founding member of the student organization Raider UI/UX.
As she looks ahead, she has a request – and some advice.
“Keep me in your thoughts and prayers as I go deeper into this path of research as service for the betterment of humanity,” Vásquez-Weber said. “And keep at the path in life that brings you joy; nothing else is asked of you.
“I am so blessed to be part of this Texas Tech family. From day one of my life as a Red Raider, I have felt staff and faculty's authentic personal investment in my success. It is with their support and that of my family and friends that I achieved this moment, which is only the beginning.”