Gwyneth Welch ’16 is working in her dream lab, at her first-choice graduate school, alongside a world-renowned neuroscientist.
As a doctoral student in the lab of Li-Huei Tsai at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Welch is contributing to a body of research on a disease that affects millions of people across the world — Alzheimer’s. Specifically, she’s looking at how different cell types in the brain change as the disease progresses.
“Balancing schoolwork and volunteer experiences and trying to fund living expenses and tuition — it’s basically impossible. The Hamel Scholarship money saved me from a lot of stress.”
“Maybe if we find out more about how they change, especially before symptoms appear, we can find ways to start treatment earlier, before severe brain loss and dementia occur,” she says.
It’s not what she anticipated, Welch says when asked about the academic path that led to her acceptance into a doctoral program at one of the world’s most prestigious universities.
She traces her success to two people at UNH: a mentor who pushed her “to become a better student of science” and a donor whose financial support helped her keep a laser focus on her scientific studies.
The mentor was Jill McGaughy, neuroscience researcher and associate professor of psychology. Welch, who studied neuroscience and behavior at UNH, shadowed McGaughy for three of her four undergraduate years, studying how the attention span of rodents develops during adolescence. She describes McGaughy as a hands-on mentor who invests a lot in training her students. “She saw my efforts and then asked more of me. I think that’s what made me a more competitive applicant,” she says.
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She credits Dana Hamel as the donor who made it possible to embark on undergraduate research and other activities that helped her application to MIT stand out. The Hamel Scholars and Scholarships program, which he established in 2008, awards scholarships and scholarly opportunities to academically ambitious and service-minded New Hampshire students. Welch, a native of Hancock, was accepted into the program at the beginning of her sophomore year.
The scholarship money was a big help. “It’s really difficult to focus on academics and on staying really involved — especially with the research experience graduate schools look for,” Welch says. “Balancing schoolwork and volunteer experiences and trying to fund living expenses and tuition — it’s basically impossible. The Hamel Scholarship money saved me from a lot of stress.”
The service-mindedness she developed as a Hamel Scholar has stayed with Welch. This fall, she and other MIT graduate students are kicking into gear a program to bring neuroscience coursework and experiments to middle and high-school students in the Greater Boston area.
“My experience with the Hamel Scholars program directly influenced this,” Welch says. “Being around other students with similar motivation for being involved really pushed me. When you’re handed a more supportive environment, you’re more likely to engage with others and make things happen.”
Originally published in IMPACT Fall 2017