Student Research in Tissue Engineering and Drug Development Earns Two Beckman Scholarships

Issue Date: 
June 13, 2016

Pitt’s 2016 Beckman Scholars—senior Uma Balakrishnan and junior Erika Gotway—are working toward medical careers, seeking to make significant contributions to research in human tissue engineering and drug development for an autoimmune disorder. 

The Beckman Scholars Program Award—a three-year institutional grant—is one of the nation’s foremost scholarships for preparing undergraduates for graduate-level study and careers in the life sciences. 

The scholarship provides as much as $26,000 in funding for 16 months of research, comprising two consecutive summer semesters as well as the intermediate academic year. Scholars present their work to Pitt’s Beckman Scholars Steering and Selection Committee as well as at national conferences and in scholarly journals. Pitt’s University Honors College oversees the University’s Beckman Scholars Program.

“Arnold O. Beckman was an accomplished scientist, and his wife, Mabel M. Beckman, was a world-renowned philanthropist. Both Uma Balakrishnan and Erika Gotway are precisely the types of student leaders with the potential to make notable contributions to our society that the Beckmans envisioned for this award,” said University Honors College Dean Edward M. Stricker, who serves as director of Pitt’s Beckman Scholars Program. “Through the Beckman Scholars Program Award, the University of Pittsburgh continues to support its community of undergraduate researchers with unique opportunities that pave the way for careers in scientific advancement and innovation.”

Uma BalakrishnanBalakrishnan’s research is focused on finding alternative methods of producing high-cell density tissues in the laboratory, which could eventually impact how organs are repaired and transplanted. She works in the lab of Lance A. Davidson, an associate professor and Wellington C. Carl Faculty Fellow in the Swanson School’s Department of Bioengineering. 

“Genetic and tissue engineering have made huge technological leaps over the past decade. We have enormous potential to affect human development, and I see tissue engineering as the next frontier for medical advancement,” said Balakrishnan, a bioengineering major. 

A native of Iowa City, Iowa, Balakrishnan is a Chancellor’s Scholar and the founder of Pitt’s Rotaract Club, a program of Rotary International. She serves as a University Honors College Ambassador and as an executive board member of the Theta Tau Professional Engineering Fraternity. She also has studied abroad at the University of Alcalá in Spain and the University of Economics and Finance in Vietnam. Balakrishnan intends to become a clinician scientist at a major academic medical center. 

Erika GotwayErika Gotway is researching treatment options for the rare autoimmune disease Lambert-Eaton Myasthenic Syndrome (LEMS). Characterized by muscle weakness in the face and limbs and frequently associated with small cell lung cancer, LEMS has no known cure and limited treatment options. It occurs when the immune system attacks areas where nerves and muscles connect. Her research is performed in the lab of Peter Wipf, Distinguished University Professor, Department of Chemistry. 

“Many functions of the brain are presently not well understood by the medical community, and this makes understanding and treating disorders of the mind quite challenging,” said Gotway, a neuroscience major in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. “I plan to dedicate my medical career to conducting neuropathological research, studying conditions with unknown causes, and developing treatment options that will improve the quality of life for patients.”

A native of Saint Peters, Mo., Gotway is founder and president of Pitt’s Autism Science Foundation Student Club. She also has served as a research assistant at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, a peer mentor for Pitt’s University Honors College, a teaching assistant in the Department of Chemistry, and a campus ambassador for the Peace Corps. 

Established in 1977, the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation is an independent, nonprofit organization that promotes research in the life-science fields.