Two UO undergraduates receive Goldwater Scholarships

Two University of Oregon students are among this year’s recipients of the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, a prized national award for research in the natural sciences, engineering and mathematics.

This article first appeared in Around the O on April 21, 2023

Two University of Oregon students are among this year’s recipients of the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, a prized national award for research in the natural sciences, engineering and mathematics.

Alexa Wright, a psychology major in the College of Arts and Sciences, and Ethan Dinh, a computer science major in the Clark Honors College, will receive $7,500 awards for the upcoming academic year. They are among the 413 recipients selected from around 5,000 candidates put forward by universities nationwide.

The scholarships are designed to support and encourage outstanding sophomore and junior students in their pursuit of research careers.

Dinh, of Happy Valley, came to UO with plans to go to medical school. But awed by the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact, he decided to get involved in scientific research. It was a good fit, he said, as the Knight Campus was seeking more undergraduate students with data and computer science skills.

Dinh now sees his long-term future in helping doctors and other medical practitioners incorporate predictive analytics and machine learning, a form of artificial intelligence, into their work. Those tools can bring both efficiency and greater equity to the U.S. health care field, Dinh believes.

“Machines are not going to replace doctors,” he said. “But I want to help remove the innate biases that humans all have when it comes to treating patients. With predictive algorithms, doctors could have a tool to accurately assess patients across all demographics, not just those from where and when they were trained.”

Dinh, a 2022 Knight Campus Undergraduate Scholar, has been working in the Guldberg Lab under the mentorship of Knight Campus Executive Director Robert Guldberg and others. His projects have included building, with robot-assisted bioprinting, bone-like microdots that could be used as an alternative to bone grafts. He’s also worked on a collaboration with Massachusetts General Hospital analyzing proteins from a group of patients who experienced stress fractures and re-fractures and searching for commonalities.

“Ethan’s curiosity, intellect, and ambitious nature are enabling him to acquire breadth and depth in many topics to position him well to build a career based on interdisciplinary research, computer science and machine learning,” Guldberg said. “I’m impressed with not only the depth of his thinking and understanding of complex topics but his strong desire to make an impact. I have full confidence that Ethan will be a future leader in the fields of machine learning and health care solutions that positively impact society.”

Wright is a Texas native who hopes to one day earn a doctorate in clinical psychology. Wright, who uses the pronouns they/she, is interested in research on neurological and psychiatric conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease and post-traumatic stress disorder. They are also interested in studying how and why psychological disorders trigger physical ailments in people.

Starting as a freshman, Wright has pursued research work with gusto, working long hours in a UO neuroscience lab and independently seeking out multiple funding opportunities to support their work. Wright feels “incredibly fortunate to have found a career path that provides the opportunity for lifelong learning and endless discovery.”

Wright's own experience with PTSD originally sparked an interest in the field, due to a difficult childhood and a family history of mental illness and addiction.

“I want to dedicate my career to studying early-life traumatic stress and developing preventative treatments to help high-risk youth, much like my young self, avoid lifelong impacts and to ease their suffering,” Wright said.

After assisting UO researchers on multiple neuroscience projects, Wright’s first independent research project involved using lab mice to study whether ketamine can slow or prevent the progression of Alzheimer’s disease symptoms. That’s because psychedelics like ketamine can create new connections in the brain and therefore could have a therapeutic value for psychiatric disorders if properly channeled, Wright believes.  

“It’s remarkable for an undergrad to take initiative and then actually move the needle like this,” said psychology professor Michael Wehr in the UO’s Institute of Neuroscience, referring to Wright’s ketamine project. “Alexa is only in their second year of undergrad and is already operating like the best grad students I’ve had.”

Both Wright and Dinh have participated in the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program during their time at UO, and they will also present some of their research next month at the UO’s Undergraduate Research Symposium.

By Saul Hubbard, University Communications
—Top photo: Ethan Dinh (left) and Alexa Wright

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