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WVU undergraduate students awarded Goldwater Scholarships to continue research

Christopher Smith, Easton Hill and Rachel King

Three West Virginia University students — (from left) Christopher Smith, Easton Cahill and Rachel King — are recipients of 2024 Goldwater Scholarships, one of the most prestigious national undergraduate scholarships that supports students with strong commitments to careers in research. (WVU Photo/Matt Sunday)

Three outstanding West Virginia University students have been named winners of the 2024 Goldwater Scholarship, the nation’s premier undergraduate scholarship in mathematics, engineering and the natural sciences. 

Story by WVU Today
Photos by WVU Today


Easton Cahill, Rachel King and Christopher Smith are among the 438 scholars selected nationwide and join the ranks of 47 Mountaineers selected before them. Each scholarship provides as much as $7,500 annually for up to two years of undergraduate study. 

“The Goldwater Scholarship is one of the most prestigious national undergraduate scholarships and supports students who have a strong commitment to a career in research,” said Candice Brown, associate professor of neuroscience and advisor for the Goldwater Scholarship. “The success of our three stellar winners is a testament to the University’s commitment and investment in supporting undergraduate research opportunities across campus.”

Easton Cahill 
The summer before his first semester at WVU, Cahill got his first taste of college-level research as part of the WVU Summer Immersion Experience with the First2 Network.

The program offered a residential STEM research experience for first-generation and underrepresented first-year students from rural areas.  

Afterward, the first-generation college student was eager to get his foot in the laboratory door as a freshman at WVU.  

Stemming from a personal experience with eye hemorrhages in middle school, the junior biology major from Bridgeport was driven by a desire to conduct ophthalmologic research and connected with Wen-Tao Deng through the Research Apprenticeship Program

The assistant professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences as well as biochemistry and molecular medicine in the WVU School of Medicine has served as Cahill’s research mentor for the last three years. 

Performing single gene replacement therapy on mice with blue cone monochromacy, a type of inherited retinal disease, Cahill’s primary goal is to help the animals see again. 

“The mutations that these individuals carry means that they lack certain functional proteins, namely L- and M- cone opsins,” he said. “Our only job is to replace that protein, delivering it to their retina so that they’re able to see again. Hopefully one day I can play a role in transitioning the treatment to humans.” 

According to Cahill, one difficult part about treating eyes is that the retina is made up of neurons and neural tissues — and those neurons last a lifetime.  

“They do not regrow,” he said. “Any type of damage that you get to your eye typically will last a lifetime. Studying the eye, its photoreceptors and neurons helps us understand different diseases that affect all our neural tissue.” 

Gene therapy research is particularly important in West Virginia, a state with the highest rate of blindness and genetic predispositions to many of the different types of blindness that exist. 

“Having my own moment of understanding about what it means to have vision and to not have vision is very scary,” Cahill said. “I really empathize with people who are dealing with it. I think this kind of research is very, very important and it’s all part of my story of why I want to do this.” 

After completing his undergraduate degree, Cahill plans to enroll in a dual medical and doctoral degree program, focusing on biochemistry and molecular medicine. 

Rachel King 
Also a First2 Network alum, King spent the summer before her freshman year at WVU conducting astronomy research at the Green Bank Observatory in Pocahontas County. 

The experience helped the Manheim, Pennsylvania, native lean into her childhood love of understanding what’s beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. 

“I remember being a little kid who knew all the planets and would watch space documentaries all the time,” King said. “Studying astronomy really gets at some of the secrets of the universe and uncovering how everything happened and going beyond this planet.”   

For the last three years, she has worked with mentor Maura McLaughlin, Eberly Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy, on pulsar research.   

“Pulsars are rapidly rotating neutron stars that emit beams of radiation from their magnetic poles and, as they spin around, these beams are observed on Earth as pulses,” King said. “They’re very similar to lighthouses. As the light spins around, you don’t see anything, except for a brief moment when the light is pointed directly at you.”   

Most recently, the physics major has been exploring pulsar nulling, a phenomenon where the pulse energy suddenly drops to zero before returning to full energy.   

“Pulsars have these incredibly regular pulses that we can detect on Earth,” she said. “Although we don’t know why, a lot of pulsar pulses will suddenly become undetectable for anywhere from seconds to hours, so I’ve been looking at different pulsars and trying to figure out what types of pulsars tend to null and, hopefully, constraining that physics a little bit.”   

As a WVU student, King has had the opportunity to present her research on campus and internationally, including at two meetings of the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves. She also attended the summer 2023 International Pulsar Timing Array meeting in Australia.  

“Research really opens doors for you and teaches you skills that you can’t really learn in the classroom,” King said. “It also connects you to faculty and I’ve made a lot of friends and connections through research.” 

King plans to get a PhD in physics or astrophysics with a current goal of one day conducting astronomy research full-time. 

Christopher Smith 
When Smith arrived at WVU three years ago, he knew three things — he’s good at math and science, has a strong desire to help others and is not interested in attending medical school. 

The Point Pleasant native found a home in the biomedical engineering program which allows him to combine his skills and passion. 

“Having a strong background in math and science and also a drive to make a difference in other people’s lives, I quickly found how biomedical engineering was the perfect fit,” Smith said. “I learned how to make medical devices, about different diagnostic techniques, how cell therapies work, how biomedical instrumentation works and how bright the future of medicine could look thanks to the work of biomedical engineers.”  

Being a first-generation college student, Smith said it “was hard to figure out” what options and paths were available to him in college. 

“My parents didn’t really have a college experience so they didn’t have any idea of what I could do once there, but they always just encouraged me to attend,” he said. “It was definitely difficult to get involved when I had no clue what to get involved in, what was really out there and I didn’t have anyone to tell me what it would be like.” 

Smith went on to say he “had no clue what research was” until a math professor encouraged him to get involved during his freshman year. 

“That summer, I sent an email to between 10 and 15 professors asking if they had room in their research labs,” he said. “Sometimes I think about how crazy it is that sending out those emails gave me a direction for the rest of my life.”

Soumya Srivastava, assistant professor of chemical and biomedical engineering, welcomed Smith into her lab and provided important shadowing and learning opportunities to help him better understand the research process.  

Smith works alongside Srivastava and Raphael Oladokun, a graduate research assistant and WVU Statler Fellow, exploring the development of a diagnostic device for early diagnosis of breast cancer. 

“Our whole goal is to create a tiny device that could process small blood samples from patients and determine the potential for breast cancer based on if the cells separate,” he said. “In theory, the immune cells would have a reaction in the body before a patient would have any other signs of cancer. This would lead to different properties and separation in our device, representing a positive screening for breast cancer.” 

Smith participated in the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience last summer, presented his research at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research this April and will travel to Puerto Rico this summer to participate in a Research Experience for Undergraduates.  

“Starting at WVU as a first-generation Hispanic student from rural West Virginia and having no clue what direction I was headed after school, experiential learning opportunities like undergraduate research have really been a blessing,” he said. “Being named a Goldwater Scholar is a huge honor. It helps remind me that I can achieve these things and helps suppress the common feeling of imposter syndrome. I hope this shows others from similar backgrounds they can achieve this as well.”

WVU students interested in the Goldwater Scholarship can work with the ASPIRE Office to learn more and apply. Founded in 2006, the office assists students applying for nationally competitive scholarships and fellowships, as well as students applying for graduate or professional schools.



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