Two University of California, Davis, juniors are among the winners of the nation’s premier undergraduate award of its type in the natural sciences, mathematics and engineering.
Jayashri Viswanathan of Fremont, California, and Naomi Murray of San Diego are the 26th and 27th students in the history of the campus to be named Goldwater Scholars — and the fourth and fifth in the last three years. The scholarship provides up to $7,500 for college expenses and was awarded to only 396 of 1,343 applicants nationwide for the 2019-20 academic year.
Both Viswanathan, a biochemistry and molecular biology major also minoring in neuroscience, and Murray, majoring in ecology, evolution and biodiversity, have participated in multiple research projects at UC Davis, and both have their sights set on academic careers.
Finding solutions for depression and anxiety
Viswanathan’s numerous research projects under the direction of Assistant Professor David Olson include research on psychedelics as potential therapeutics for depression, anxiety and Alzheimer’s.
“Classic psychedelics display great therapeutic properties, but their hallucinogenic properties make them undesirable candidates for take-home medicines,” Viswanathan said. “My past projects were aimed at developing novel neurotherapeutics inspired by classic psychedelic compounds,” she added. “Currently, I am working to understand how psychedelics cause hallucinations.”
Viswanathan is co-author of two papers that will appear in national peer-reviewed journals and has several single-author papers in preparation. She has presented her research at regional and campus conferences, and was awarded a Provost’s Undergraduate Fellowship, which supports students doing research under the guidance of faculty members.
She is also the lead tutor for mathematics at UC Davis, and has provided mentorship and guidance to first-year biochemistry students through the BioLaunch Mentor Collective.
The secret life of trees
Murray’s passion for studying how plants communicate and cooperate with one another was born during a summer research position monitoring tree mortality. For three weeks she camped out in the forests of Yosemite Valley — without running water or electricity — and spent long hours each day collecting data. At first, the challenges of extreme weather, fatigue and on-site data collection panicked her, but those doubts gave way to the beauty of her research subjects.
“I began to see that the trees were spectacularly interconnected, like complex networks of neurons in the brain, each working as one small piece of a highly intelligent whole, able to detect and respond to changes in their environment,” Murray said. “It is beautiful and unexplored, and more than anything I aspire to understand the way it works.”
Murray has been working in Professor Rick Karban’s lab studying how plants communicate with one another to synchronize flowering, and what benefits plants may reap from sharing information about herbivores. She did a research project on eel grass at Bodega Marine Lab and studied the effects of human-generated noise on tree swallow nestlings.
A University Honors Program student and a Regents Scholar, Murray actively contributes to campus life. She works at the UC Davis Botanical Conservatory helping to maintain its collection of more than 3,000 plant species. She also serves as an officer for UC Davis SEEDS (Strategies for Ecology Education, Diversity, and Sustainability), an offshoot of the Ecological Society of America intended to make ecology more accessible to underrepresented groups.
About the Goldwater Scholarship
Honoring the late U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater, the federally endowed Goldwater Scholarship Program was designed to encourage outstanding students to pursue research careers in the natural sciences, mathematics and engineering.
The Undergraduate and Prestigious Scholarship office at UC Davis assists high-achieving students in applying for 20 of the most prestigious national and international scholarships.