Katie Oppenheimer in brown sweater smiling in front of windows
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Meet the undergraduate ‘rock star scientist’ named a 2022 Goldwater scholar

  • Innovation and Research
  • Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences
  • David C. Frederick Honors College

The way Katie Oppenheimer learned she was a 2022 Goldwater scholar resembled something from a movie.

“It was kind of crazy,” said Oppenheimer, a University Honors College (UHC) student and ambassador who speaks biweekly with prospective students about her Pitt experience.

“After my presentation, the dean of the Honors College came in and announced my selection in front of everyone,” said Oppenheimer. “It was incredible.”

The junior microbiology major in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences joins an impressive community of 417 students selected for the scholarship from across the United States for the 2022-23 academic year.

“The Goldwater scholarship is the most prestigious and competitive award in the United States for students specializing in STEM fields,” said Nicola Foote, dean of the Honors College. “Katie is being recognized for her extraordinary research on genetic instability and its relationship to cancer. Being named a Goldwater scholar signifies her ascendancy as one of the most talented young scientists in the nation. She represents the very best of the University Honors College.”

The scholarship is for undergraduate researchers who intend to pursue a doctorate or MD/PhD in natural sciences, engineering or mathematics. Funding covers the cost of tuition, books, fees and room and board for one academic year. It is supported by the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation and the Department of National Defense Education Programs.

In addition to serving as an Introduction to Molecular Genetics Laboratory teaching assistant, Oppenheimer splits time between the labs of Allyson O’Donnell, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, and Kara Bernstein, an associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Sciences. She said the labs are what she loves most about Pitt.

“Doctors O’Donnell and Bernstein are the best mentors I could’ve ever asked for,” said Oppenheimer. “They’re incredible scientists doing amazing research, but the lab community they create is so supportive and established on mutual success.”

In these settings, Oppenheimer has thrived. She’ll likely co-author two upcoming manuscripts from the O’Donnell lab a milestone for any undergraduate researcher.

With the Goldwater scholarship, Oppenheimer plans to continue her work studying DNA damage responses, with a focus on assessing which mutations on a particular protein are associated with increased breast and ovarian cancer risk. In the fall, she’ll apply to graduate school.

“Katie is a fantastic and inspiring young person, a natural leader and a committed member of our research team,” said O’Donnell. “She works diligently on research that focuses on clinically relevant work and has generated publication-quality figures and analyses of her data. The Goldwater scholarship is a terrific launching point for her future scientific career.”

The same week Oppenheimer learned about Goldwater, the UHC Undergraduate and Chancellor’s Undergraduate Research fellow also received the Norman H. Horowitz Fellowship. Named for a 1936 Pitt graduate and geneticist, it’s awarded through the Department of Biological Sciences to support summer research.

Dave Fraser, a UHC scholar-mentor, worked closely with Oppenheimer on her Goldwater application, a process he compared to writing a manuscript.

“The process requires that the student have a deep understanding of their work to explain it both in the technical sense and the larger context they’re working in,” said Fraser. He noted the latter is often challenging for undergrads “since only the most astute and dedicated students will have gathered that in the short time they’ve been working in their field.”

But Oppenheimer, he said, is a “rock star scientist.”

“She’s the real deal,” said Fraser. “The process was often about what to leave out rather than finding something to fill the space. She loves her work and is a brilliant student who earned the win.”

Between O’Donnell, Bernstein, Fraser and Foote, Oppenheimer said she couldn’t have asked for better support.

“My dream is to become a professor, run a lab and continue pursuing interesting research and mentoring undergrads and grad students,” said Oppenheimer. “Science has always been a big part of my life, so being able to return the support and mentorship I've received at Pitt would be an incredible experience.”


— Kara Henderson