Program gives students freedom to explore deeper thinking

Two Mount Holyoke College students have been selected for the second round of the Beckman Scholars Program. As part of the 15-month program, students delve deeply into advanced research projects with the mentorship of a College faculty member.

Students planning futures in STEM often dream about making discoveries and surfing uncharted waters. However, two Mount Holyoke College students are already on their way to making those dreams a reality through the Beckman Scholars Program.

Moss Beeler ’26, a biology major, and Aitana Zamora Varela ’27, a double-major in neuroscience and behavior, and psychology major, were selected for the program through a competitive process and are embarking on a 15-month immersive research project under the mentorship of College faculty. Both students also receive a $21,000 scholarship from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation. They are Mount Holyoke’s second cohort of Beckman Scholars.

“We selected two fantastic students who expressed their strong curiosity and inquisitive nature as well as their commitment to work productively in a team setting,” said Jared Schwartzer, the project director for the Beckman Scholars Program, as well as the associate professor of psychology and education and director of the Science Center. “Science is filled with setbacks and failed experiments, and both of our scholars demonstrated their resiliency and ability to persevere through adversity.”

This year, he’s most proud of the work the selection committee put into developing an application and selection process focused on inclusive excellence. The process included conversations with students, administrators, faculty and staff. Through that selection process, Schwartzer said qualities and characteristics that shape a successful scientist were identified. 

“These criteria abandoned traditional metrics of success that are often rooted in systemic inequities, such as prior research experience or access to advanced placement coursework in high school,” he said. “I am confident our Beckman Scholars will make great advances in their research over these next 15 months under the supervision of two stellar faculty mentors.”

Zamora Varela, a native of St. Louis, is studying with Kenneth Colodner, associate professor and chair of neuroscience and behavior, to investigate epigenetic changes resulting from neurodegeneration in the brains of fruit flies.

Growing up with a mother who was a psychologist, Zamora Varela said that psychological discussions were common, and they developed an interest in psychology at an early age.

“There are more abnormalities in the brain that we haven’t studied yet, and we need more researchers to discover how these effects begin and what the series of events are that can lead someone to experience neurodegeneration,” said Zamora Varela. “Millions of people suffer from Alzheimer's disease and similar neurological conditions. I think it’s pretty important for people to want to go into this field and study this.”

Like most scientific endeavors, Zamora Varela’s research isn’t without challenges. The fruit fly brain needs to be extracted whole to secure accurate findings. However, since it is approximately the same size as a poppy seed, the extraction process can often end with damage. Admittedly, they smooshed roughly 50 brains already. 

But according to Colodner, that’s all part of the learning process.

“I get as excited as they do and as disappointed as they do,” he said. “I tell my students to embrace the error and that if they’re not making mistakes, then they’re not learning. In the beginning, they should be making plenty of mistakes and asking as many questions as they can.”

Beeler, a native of Sudbury, Massachusetts, is studying under the mentorship of Patricia Brennan, associate professor of biological sciences, to characterize bioacoustics of roughly 10 species of salamander.

“With the Beckman Scholars Program, Moss is getting an opportunity to do uninterrupted research that she’s getting paid for,” said Brennan. “That is pretty amazing because it basically gives you the freedom to really do some deeper thinking and to spend the time developing your ideas and … figuring out what it is that you want to do.” 

The first part of the project involves a literature review, which hasn’t been done since the 1950s, according to Brennan. 

“There’s very little known about salamander vocalizations,” she said. “There’s no one we can call to get input on this because there’s no one doing this research right now. So this does involve a bit of trial and error.”

Beeler and Brennan have also been in touch with Cornell University for input on the best sound equipment to purchase as the Ithaca-based institution maintains the repository for sound production of all creatures on the planet. To date, Cornell has no recordings of salamanders. 

“Bioacoustics has opened up this whole new world for me,” said Beeler. “I can’t go to Mars, but around the globe, there’s so much of this world that we don’t understand, and I want to explore that.”

The Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation first selected Mount Holyoke College as a Beckman Scholars Program awardee in 2023. The program looks to colleges and universities with outstanding science, technology, engineering and mathematics credentials and faculty who excel as both researchers and mentors to host 15-month mentored research experiences for exceptional undergraduates in chemistry and life sciences.




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  • Assistant Director, Public Affairs & Executive Communications