Lena Treiber ’22 searches for connections between the dimmest and brightest objects in outer space. Hyery Yoo ’22 works at the intersection between computer science and biochemistry. They are two of the 410 students nationwide chosen by the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation to receive funding and support for the coming academic year.
“The Scholarship Program honoring Senator Barry Goldwater,” according to the foundation’s announcement, “was designed to foster and encourage outstanding students to pursue research careers in the fields of the natural sciences, engineering and mathematics.”
Helena “Lena” Treiber ’22
“I’ve worked on some of the faintest and some of the brightest astrophysical objects,” Lena Treiber ’22 wrote in her application for the Goldwater Scholarship. “And yet I always look for the connections between the two, and the ways in which one project might help me develop ideas for another.”
An astronomy and physics major born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., Treiber began working in the lab of Assistant Professor of Astronomy Kate Follette in the summer of 2019, as a research fellow in Amherst’s SURF Program. “In the Follette Lab, we work on directly imaging exoplanets, which are planets orbiting other stars,” Treiber explains. “We often compare this endeavor to trying to see a firefly next to a lighthouse from a kilometer away. Planets are faint as is, but they’re also right next to stars, which are millions or billions of times brighter than them!”
Treiber also spent four nights in January 2020 working with telescopes at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Tucson, Ariz., as part of Postdoctoral Fellow Kimberly Ward-Duong’s “Observational Techniques” course. And she works remotely with researchers at Yale to study pairings called Be/X-ray binaries, each consisting of “a star that is much bigger than the Sun and a neutron star, which is a dead star that has a bit more mass than the sun, but squeezed into the same radius as Manhattan.”
“The main connection between these projects is the fact that, in each case, an astrophysical object is gathering material in a process called accretion,” she says. Her understanding of accretion will be important this summer when she works with a professor at the University of Hawaiʻi to “search for galaxies with supermassive black holes at their centers.”
Treiber has also collaborated with Follette on a proposal for a project involving NASA’s soon-to-be-launched James Webb Space Telescope.
After graduating from Amherst next year, Treiber plans to pursue a Ph.D. and become a professor of astrophysics. Active on a committee that aims to address issues of equity and diversity in the College’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, she wrote, “My experiences have affirmed that I want to teach in addition to being a researcher. I want to work hard to construct classes that are informative, interesting, but also accessible to students of different backgrounds.”
And what does her own teacher think of her? “I have often had to remind myself that Lena is only a sophomore/junior in college because frankly, she performs much more like a graduate student,” Follette wrote in recommending Treiber for the Goldwater Scholarship. “She has an uncanny intuition for data analysis, and is consistently able to articulate what the next steps should be on a project without any guidance from me.”
“If she decides to become an astrophysicist,” Follette added, “she will be a remarkable one.”
Hyery Yoo ’22
When Hyery Yoo ’22 applied for the Goldwater Scholarship last fall, she was a double major in chemistry and math. But by the time she found out she won, she had changed her major to computer science. It was a shift that likely wouldn’t have happened if not for COVID-19.
Yoo, whose family emigrated from South Korea to San Jose, Calif., when she was a child, engaged in biochemistry research at the University of California, Berkeley, during the summer of 2019. She also worked in the lab of Visiting Assistant Professor of Biology Nidanie Henderson-Stull at Amherst—until the pandemic forced students and faculty to disperse from campus in March 2020.
Yoo’s next research experience had to happen remotely, to avoid the spread of COVID-19—and, in fact, the research was on the virus itself. In summer 2020, the lab of bioengineering professor Tanja Kortemme at the University of California, San Francisco, was working to develop ways to prevent SARS-CoV-2 from entering cells. Yoo learned how to use computer software to model the effects of different possible mutations of the cellular receptor protein ACE2.
That experience “cinched my desire to pursue a research career,” Yoo wrote in her Goldwater application. “It was the first time that I held the power to decide the direction of my project from the planning stage to the end,” she continued. “I realized that research satisfies my desire for a career that constantly challenges me and leads me to new realms.”
Her work in the Kortemme lab also introduced her to computational biology, which she describes as “a relatively new field with huge potential in understanding and engineering biological systems.” Her newfound interest in the field prompted her to become a computer science major in January 2021.
Yoo will spend this summer doing bioinformatics research with scientists at UCLA. And she plans to do her senior thesis with Assistant Professor of Chemistry Jacob Olshansky, whose Amherst lab investigates artificial photosynthesis.
Yoo wrote that among the things she loved most about her summer in the Kortemme lab were the “strong community and open-mindedness of researchers,” their “unsparing support” and their “collaboration and openness.” In the same vein, she appreciates how the Goldwater Scholarship gives her online access to a network of scholars and mentors, who hold webinars and answer questions about graduate school and career opportunities.
“Knowing that I will be part of an open community that shares an excitement for discovery,” she wrote, “I feel certain I will be happy pursuing a research career.”