By ZENAIDA GONZALEZ KOTALA | April 6, 2021 4:16 pm

An aspiring gene therapy innovator, biomedical sciences student Devin Burris is one of four UCF STEM students to receive 2020-21 Goldwater Scholarship Awards. The four were selected from a pool of 1,256 nominees across the nation after a rigorous screening process.

According to the award website, the Goldwater Scholarship program “is among the oldest and most prestigious national scholarships in the natural sciences, engineering and mathematics and seeks to identify and support sophomores and juniors who demonstrate exceptional promise in becoming the next research leaders in these fields.”

The awards are not only coveted because of the money, but also because recipients are thought to have great promise. Many have gone onto receive additional prestigious awards such as Rhodes, Marshall, Churchill and Hertz scholarships as well as National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships to help them pay for graduate school.

Awardees receive a scholarship to cover tuition, fees, books and room and board costs for a maximum of two years at their home institution. All four of this year’s winners have worked with UCF’s Academic Advancement Programs.

At UCF, Burris is working with Assistant Professor of Biology Charissa de Bekker looking at the genes in a fungus that infects ‘zombie ants’ and how they change the ant behavior.

“Devin has been resilient and has maintained her passion and excellent work ethic,” says Dr. Alicia Hawthorne, assistant professor at the Burnett School who also mentors Burris.“ I look forward to seeing what she accomplishes in the future.”

Burris is also a participant in the National Institutes of Health’s BP-ENDURE (Blueprint Program for Enhancing Neuroscience Diversity through Undergraduate Research Education Experiences) program where she is completing a two-summer internship at Washington University School of Medicine. There, she is working with Dr. Harrison Gabel, assistant professor at Wash U, looking at the genetic basis of neurodevelopmental disorders. She is using computational modeling to understand how mutations in one gene (DNMT3A) can disrupt brain development and function.

“I was lucky enough to recruit Devin to work in my lab at Washington University in St. Louis through our BP-ENDURE program,” Dr. Gabel says. “She has already made key insights into the genetics basis of this disorder, and I am looking forward to her continued work in the lab.”

Burris is also a Burnett Honors Scholar, an participates in several student development programs at UCF including the Research and Mentoring Program (RAMP), the EXCEL program which helps boost math skills for STEM students and Girls EXCELing in Math and Science (GEMS).

Her advice for fellow students, “Be proud of the work you have done. It is easy to fall victim to imposter syndrome in STEM, especially if you are an underrepresented minority. Once you become an academic, you realize how little you really know about the world. Once you become a researcher, you realize how little everyone else knows too, which in a way can be comforting as you pursue the edge of knowledge together.”

Burris says she is thrilled to be getting the scholarship because it means an opportunity to continue her research and achieve her ultimate goal. She says her mentors were critical to helping her find her way and supporting her. She also says each of the programs she was involved in at UCF and Washington have taught her skills that have led to her success so far.

“I want to go into working on gene therapy in the industry because there are many opportunities to be at the front of medicine here,” she says.

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