Boston College Biology Major Receives Goldwater Scholarship


CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. — Boston College sophomore Maria Asdourian, a biology major whose research interests focus on the neurobiology of Alzheimer’s disease, has been awarded a Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, which is considered the premier undergraduate fellowship in the sciences.

Goldwater Scholarships are awarded on the basis of academic merit to the country’s most promising college students in math, science and engineering. This year, 271 sophomores and juniors were selected from among 1,107 nominees. Many Goldwater Scholars go on to earn prestigious post-graduate fellowships, including Rhodes, Marshall and Churchill scholarships, and many others.

“I am grateful for this opportunity,” said Asdourian. “There are so many phenomenal science, math and engineering students throughout the country. It’s an honor to be a part of this group of Goldwater scholars.”

The 2011 graduate of Burlington High School said she was home for the Easter break when she found out she had received the prize, which provides scholarship assistance for two years.

“I think I screamed,” Asdourian said. “My mom was home and she thought there was something wrong. But it was such a surprise. Both of my parents were so happy. It was nice to be home to share it with them.”

Asdourian attributes her interest in biological research, specifically in Alzheimer’s, to the difficult experience of watching her grandfather eventually succumb to the disease.

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“He always looked lost in his own thoughts and it was hard to see that,” said Asdourian. “But there were areas of cognition where he was fine – like playing backgammon or counting out jelly beans. I just felt sad and frustrated that he was written off while still here.”

In addition to better understanding the pathology of Alzheimer’s, she is particularly interested in whether the brain’s ability to adapt and “re-wire” itself holds secrets that could one day lead to therapies to combat Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases.

Asdourian, who plans to earn an MD/PhD after graduation, has been an undergraduate researcher in the lab of Prof. Daniel A. Kirschner, a structural neurobiologist who studies the molecular organization of Alzheimer’s disease proteins and diseases of nerve myelin in the peripheral and central nervous systems.

Kirschner, who nominated Asdourian for the scholarship, said she devoured scientific articles he suggested she read and later established herself as a quick study in the lab despite having had no bench experience prior to arriving at the university.

Among the many undergraduates who have worked in his lab throughout the years, Kirschner said Asdourian “has uniquely demonstrated an unusual talent for and exceptional passion about neurobiological research.” Her independent research, using the sensitive technique of x-ray diffraction, has revealed previously unsuspected changes in peripheral myelin structure that bear similarities to cuprizone-induced defects found in the central nervous system.

Kirschner wrote in his nomination letter, “Maria is precisely the kind of exceptional student who would truly benefit from the opportunities [a Goldwater Scholarship] would provide — not only for the encouragement it will give her in her laboratory research and intended career, but also for the networking opportunities with peers and scientists that will be afforded to her through this honor.”

Asdourian credited her father, Avo, an architect, and her mother, Esther, a chiropractor, with setting examples that inspired her work ethic and instilled a desire to help others.

“Growing up, the most important thing was to be of service to others and to be welcoming to the people in your life. Those were constant messages,” she said of her parents, who emigrated from Lebanon to the US, where Maria was born.


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