Leah Deflitch, a neuroscience: cellular & molecular major in the College of Science and Technology, has been named a Goldwater Scholar, the most prestigious undergraduate scholarship in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. She is CST's and Temple's third Goldwater recipient, following physics major Marcus Forst in 2018 and physics and mechanical engineering Mitchell Young in 2019.
This is also the first year in which Temple University earned multiple recipients, with Daniel Jovin, a bioengineering student in the College of Engineering, also earning the Goldwater distinction.
"We just keep hitting new firsts," said Barbara Gorka, director of scholar development and fellowships advising at Temple. In recent years, she noted, Temple has seen its first Rhodes Scholar, a doubling of its Goldwater Scholars and a record number of Fulbright applicants and awardees. This year, Deflitch has become the first Temple woman to earn the Barry Goldwater Scholarship, and Jovin is the first Temple recipient on the medical research track. "I think Leah and Daniel's selection as Goldwater recipients demonstrates a growing awareness that Temple students are nationally competitive for this type of recognition," Gorka said.
The Goldwater Scholarship Foundation named 396 recipients nationally in 2020 from a pool of 461 institutions that submitted applicants. As awardees, Deflitch and Jovin will each receive $7,500 for tuition, housing and fees for their senior year as they continue their research.
Deflitich, a Pittsburgh native, has been conducting neurobiology research at Temple's Bio-Life Science Building since her freshman year.
"My lab has been very conducive to undergraduate-led research, and we basically look to understand the underlying molecular and genetic mechanisms of abrupt memory deficits, like delirium," Deflitch said. "It's been a great experience."
In her scholarship application, Deflitch talked about her participation in the CST's Science Scholars Program and Undergraduate Research Program, the Frances Velay Fellowship for women in STEM and the Diamond Research Scholars Program, where she had the opportunity to take on a project begun by a postdoctoral student examining potential genetic markers of delirium.
She has also presented her findings for two consecutive years at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, the world's largest neuroscience conference drawing scientists and physicians from more than 80 countries.
Deflitch said the cognitive decline associated with delirium can be a precursor to dementia and Alzheimer's. She said she's excited by the potential her work can have for people suffering from these common degenerative ailments.
Deflitch said she was both ecstatic to earn the award and gratified to make her advisors and mentors proud.
"It was very clear from the start that Leah would do well; she is exceptionally bright and intensely curious, and she is possessed of a voracious enthusiasm for research," said Susan Patterson, a associate professor in the Department of Biology and head of the neuroimmunology laboratory where Deflitich has worked for more than two years. "I'm really glad to see a young woman win it, too. We don't always have enough models of what female success looks like in the sciences."
Deflitch is the co-president and founder of the Temple chapter of Scientista, an organization encouraging the participation of women in STEM, and she said she thinks that awarding fellowships and scholarships to women is essential to allow more women to rise to the highest levels in these fields.
"A huge problem in research is that in most cases as an undergraduate you don't get paid to work in a lab," Deflitch said. "That's why the availability of fellowships and scholarships is super important for me and for students who have to choose between lab work or an outside job."
After she earns her degree in 2021, Deflitch plans to pursue a PhD in neuroscience with the eventual hope of becoming a professor and principal investigator of her own research laboratory.
—Andrew Lochrie and Eric Horvath