WWU’s Caitlin Bannister is Western’s first Behavioral Neuroscience student to receive a coveted Goldwater Scholarship

WWU junior Caitlin Bannister’s interest and research efforts into the mysteries of the nervous system have allowed her to be Western’s first behavioral neuroscience student to receive a prestigious Barry Goldwater Scholarship from the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation.

With an award of up to $7,500, the scholarship invites junior and senior STEM majors across the country to apply. The highly competitive scholarship is specifically geared toward students wanting to land a research job in natural sciences, engineering and mathematics. About 300 are given out each year out  of a typical applicant pool of 5,000 or more students.

Bannister said she applied to the scholarship last year, but because it was highly research-focused, she was not a strong candidate as she was not involved in research on campus yet. Since then she was able to find perfect research mentors in Kameron Harris, an assistant professor of Computer Science, and Jeff Carroll, an associate professor of Psychology.

All three work together in a computational neuroscience research collaboration on Huntington’s disease. Their research involves behavioral analysis using computational analysis methods.

Harris researches computational neuroscience, which is the combination of modeling and utilizing computers to study the brain. His team uses programming to analyze neural data along with mathematics to create models of brain networks.

“Data analysis is Caitlin’s project. She works with a data set of videos of mice and uses artificial neural networks to put dots on the mouse to label its parts,” Harris said.

It helps his work as it tracks their behavior.

Carroll’s main area of research involves trying to develop better drugs for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

“I specifically work on a genetic form of a neurodegenerative disease called Huntington’s disease,” Carroll said. “My lab uses genetic mouse models of that disease to try to develop better treatments for people who have it.”

Carroll said Caitlin’s portion of their research involves a new high-tech way of looking at the behavior of mice that are using the treatments.

This ongoing research allowed her to promote herself as a strong candidate for the scholarship.

“She has this incredible organizational ability that serves her well,” Carroll said. “Caitlin is succeeding in a uniquely driven and personal way, and although she’s at the beginning of a very long academic career, this prestigious recognition shows her potential.”

What makes Bannister unique is her dedication to returning to school more than a decade after finishing high school. Before college, Bannister worked a full-time job as a caregiver for 10 years. During this time, she thought about going into nursing, but then decided that it would be more beneficial to study neuroscience because it worked on a lot of neurogenerative diseases.

“I thought maybe I could go do something where I work on treatments and cures instead of taking care of people, so that maybe fewer people would need caregiving,” Bannister said.

She restarted her educational career by enrolling at Everett Community College, and later transferring to Western Washington University to work towards a bachelor’s degree in behavioral neuroscience.

After receiving the award notification, Bannister expressed many emotions, from happiness to shock.

“Being a student returning to university so long after high school can sometimes feel a little bit isolating, and like I’m at a disadvantage,” she said. “Figuring out how to return to school was challenging.”

She said she was filled with the excitement of not only the award notification but also proving to herself she could be successful in the university setting.

“There was a little voice in my head shouting, ‘I did it!’”

Alongside her research collaboration with Harris and Carroll, Bannister is currently enrolled in the Honors College and is double minoring in political science and economics in addition to her major in behavioral neuroscience. She is the on-campus coordinator for the Neuroscience Research-Driven Students (NeRDS) club and the secretary for Psi Chi, the International Psychology Honors Society.

With one year left at Western, Bannister said she plans to continue her research in graduate school and obtain a doctorate in neuroscience, eventually researching mechanisms to develop treatments for damaged and dysfunctional nervous systems.

“There was a little voice in my head shouting, ‘I did it!’”

“I’m interested in the mechanisms of nervous system repair and the way they can apply therapeutically to a variety of conditions,” she said.

With her future goals focused on the graduate program at The University of Washington, Bannister said she will always appreciate her time and opportunity at Western.

“Western provides smaller class sizes and one-on-one time with professors, which has allowed me the opportunity to receive important advice from them,” Bannister said. “The faculty at Western have expressed a genuine interest and willingness to invest time and energy into my future and education.”