Two Kent State A&S Students Win Prestigious Goldwater Scholarship

Gracen Gerbig and Hayley Shasteen, both Kent State University students in the College of Arts and Sciences, recently received the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, considered the nation’s premier undergraduate award in the natural sciences, math and engineering. They were recognized by President Beverly Warren at the Kent State Board of Trustees meeting on May 9.

Both were inspired to apply for the scholarship after Frank Congin, director of Academic Programs in  the Honors College, gave a presentation to them and the other students participating in the 2018 Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) program at Kent State.

Gracen Gerbig

Ms. Gerbig, a Dover, Ohio native and senior honors student majoring in cellular and molecular biology, was ecstatic when she received the notification of the scholarship. “This scholarship will provide me entrance into a community of like-minded scholars with shared interests and goals as well as the financial flexibility to focus on my research endeavors,” Gerbig said.

Since enrolling at Kent State, Gerbig became fascinated with bacteria and viruses. She said her major (cellular and molecular biology) provides a concrete foundation of knowledge on how organisms operate, and pairs well with her minor in public health.

Working with Epidemiology Professor Dr. Tara Smith, Ph.D., in the College of Public Health, Ms. Gerbig studied antibiotic resistance of the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus isolated from rats in Boston. Her summer research was supported by an Undergraduate Research Fellowship award from the American Society for Microbiology (ASM). The project is in collaboration with the Boston University School of Public Health and Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. To learn more about this research, visit: https://www.kent.edu/esdri/news/research-fellowship-award-kent-state-undergrad-supports-summer-microbiology-research

Her work in the research laboratories at Kent State have allowed her the opportunity to acquire hands-on experience with microorganisms, interact with graduate students, including a PhD candidate from Nigeria, and improve her scientific writing and communication skills.

She has presented her work at the 2019 Scientista National Symposium, the 2019 Ohio American Society for Microbiology Meeting (where she received the J. Robie Vestal Award for Research Excellence), the 2019 Undergraduate Research Symposium at Kent State, and at a recent meeting of the University’s Environmental Science and Design Research Initiative, which brings together faculty from across the Kent State system who are working in both natural and built systems. In June, she will present her poster at the 2019 ASM Microbe Meeting in San Francisco, California.

After she graduates in May 2020, she plans to study microbiology in a PhD program and acquire a clinical research background, with the goal of becoming a postdoctoral research fellow in infectious disease and epidemiology.

“My ultimate goal is to have a teaching position at a research university while also managing a research laboratory,” Gerbig said. “I want to study disease in other countries and learn more about the governmental role in health and wellness. I plan to contribute to the understanding of potential pathogens in our communities and environments and to help implement public health approaches that improve the quality of people’s lives.”

Hayley Shasteen

Ms. Shasteen, a Berlin Center, Ohio native and Kent State junior double majoring in biology and psychology, was extremely happy when she learned that she was awarded the scholarship. “It’s such a huge honor to be recognized for my research efforts in this way,” Shasteen said.  

A first-generation college student, Shasteen juggles three part-time jobs while taking classes. She said that affording college has not been easy when her family could not provide money for tuition and other school-related expenses.

“This scholarship allows me to truly focus on my studies and research and alleviates my financial stress, which can get in the way of my schoolwork,” Shasteen said.

After both she and her mom were diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), a chronic, inflammatory autoimmune disease, Shasteen developed a strong desire to study molecular and cellular biology and pursue a career in cognitive neuropsychology research.

“Two years ago, my mother was finally diagnosed with SLE,” Shasteen said. “Although she has been fortunate to receive adequate treatment to minimize her symptoms, she still battles with physical symptoms as well as cognitive impairment, which negatively impacts many aspects of her life, including her career and relationships.”

The focus of Shasteen’s research is on cognitive impairments in patients with lupus. Working with Assistant Professor of Psychology Dr. Rachael Blasiman in her Cognitive Variance Lab on the Salem Campus, she ran a longitudinal study investigating subjective cognitive complaints in individuals with lupus, and she is currently conducting a follow-up study based on that research. She is also investigating how exposure to sunlight affects disease activity in those with lupus and how catastrophizing and chronic pain conditions relate to cognitive functioning.

“Having lupus myself gives me a unique perspective on current patient treatment and what current research efforts are focused on,” Shasteen said. “I am interested in cognitive impairment in people with lupus because it is an under-recognized component of the disease, which is a shame because cognition has such a heavy influence on daily life in so many ways. Lupus is a common, invisible, and chronic disease with no cure and is very misunderstood. I want to clear up ambiguities in the field and work towards understanding the mechanisms of the disease.”

Shasteen also works as a research assistant in Dr. Douglas Delahanty's Stress and Health Lab in the Department of Psychological Sciences and Dr. Eric Mintz's lab, in the Department of Biological Sciences, where the focus is on circadian rhythm disruptions.

She wants to fully understand the relationship between the circadian rhythm and SLE. The circadian rhythm is responsible for the sleep/wake cycle of the body (regulated by sunlight exposure) and the release of the hormone melatonin. Based on her research, she believes that the circadian rhythm function in patients with SLE is impaired.

She recently presented her research work at Kent State’s Undergraduate Research Symposium as well as at the Association for University Regional Campuses of Ohio (AURCO) Conference. She is now conducting a replication study about which she plans to write a research paper.

After she graduates in May 2021, she plans to attend graduate school to work towards completing a Ph.D. in cognitive neuropsychology and continue to do lupus research focusing on the mechanisms of cognitive impairments on both a subjective and performance level in patients with SLE and other autoimmune diseases, such as multiple sclerosis.

For more information about the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation, visit https://goldwater.scholarsapply.org.

For more information about the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience Program at Kent State, visit: https://www.kent.edu/research/student-research/summer-undergraduate-research-experience

# # #

Media Contact:
Jim Maxwell, 330-672-8028, jmaxwel2@kent.edu