Rachael Volkman, a University of Iowa neuroscience major from Iowa City, Iowa, was named a 2022 Goldwater Scholar by the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation.
Vollkman is one of 417 recipients from across the country selected from a pool of more than 5,000 applicants.
The Goldwater Scholarship, established by Congress in 1986 in honor of US Sen. Barry M. Goldwater, fosters and encourages outstanding students to pursue careers in the fields of mathematics, the natural sciences, and engineering. The Goldwater is the premier undergraduate award of its type in these fields.
“I am incredibly grateful to be named a Goldwater Scholar this year and I am grateful for the support provided to me throughout the process by Kelly Thornburg, Dr. Rachel Filwett, Dr. Kumar Narayanan, and all of my mentors in the Narayanan Lab,” says Volkman.
Volkman was surprised to learn that she is the first neuroscience major from Iowa to be named a Goldwater Scholar and says it’s a testament to the quality of the neuroscience program at Iowa.
“When I declared neuroscience as my major, the curriculum was still relatively new to the university and it’s amazing to see how quickly it has grown and developed,” says Volkman. “I think that is incredibly exciting particularly because it demonstrates what a fantastic program in neuroscience the University of Iowa has put together in such a short period of time.”
Volkman chose the University of Iowa for its breadth of experiential learning opportunities along with its close relationship with the UI Hospitals & Clinics. It made her pivot from psychology to neuroscience before her freshman year easy.
“I was initially considering pursuing psychology because I have always found the brain and cognition interesting, but I also had a passion for biology and the cellular components of neuronal pathways,” says Volkman. “This led me to neuroscience.”
Now a third-year student, Volkman has found ways to expand her scientific skills working at the Iowa Neuroscience Institute and in the lab of Dr. Kumar Narayanan, where her research focuses on cognitive neuroscience and the anatomy of how the brain sends and receives messages.
“I have worked in Dr. Narayanan’s lab since my freshman year and my work there has transformed the way I think about working in a lab, graduate school, and research,” says Volkman. “My mentors have given me a level of responsibility that allows me to actively participate in research, which has led me to find my own interests and encourages me to ask questions and get involved.”
Volkman is the second Goldwater Scholar from Narayanan’s lab after Lucy Wagner in 2018, who worked in the lab during the summers while attending St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota.
“Rachael is positive, thoughtful, careful, and incredibly driven. She works through spring break and all of her vacations,” says Narayanan. “She is smart and careful. At the same time, she is incredibly compassionate and positive and a real asset to any scientific endeavor.”
Volkman says she hopes her research will lead to a better understanding of treatments and symptoms in neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and Huntington’s.
“In the lab, I work with animal models to develop a better understanding of the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease,” says Volkman. “I am able to run behavior tests with the animals and perform data collection through recordings of individual neuronal firing activities or stimulations.”
In short, the tests she performs allow her to identify neural links to fine motor skills, gross motor skills, learning, and timing.
And when she graduates in 2023, Volkman says she looks forward to continuing her education and pursuit of neuroscience breakthroughs.
“(After I graduate,) I would like to obtain my medical doctor or doctorate in neuroscience with a focus on age-related neurodegenerative diseases and eventually teach at the university level,” says Volkman.
Each Goldwater Scholar annually receives an amount equal to the cost of tuition, mandatory fees, books, and room and board minus the amount of support provided for by other sources, up to a maximum of $7,500. Scholars who receive the award as second-year students can expect to receive support for a maximum of two years (four semesters) or until graduation, if sooner. Scholars who receive the award as third-year students can expect to receive support for a maximum of one year (two semesters) or until graduation, if sooner.