Published: Sept. 5, 2023 By

Keala GapinKeala Gapin, a chemical and biological engineering senior with minors in leadership studies and computational biology, is the recipient of a 2023 scholarship from the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, an organization founded by the Mercury 7 astronauts and sustained by successive generations of NASA astronauts. Scholars are awarded up to $15,000 per year for education-related expenses and may be awarded for up to two years of undergraduate work. The merit-based ASF scholarship is the largest known monetary award of its kind given in the United States to science and engineering undergraduate students. 

What does this award mean to you? 
The Astronaut Scholarship feels like an investment in my future and a permanent connection to a network of scholars who are ready to change the world. The scholars inspire me to do my utmost to continue to merit the recognition.

What research have you been involved in?
I am affiliated with the Chuong Lab as part of the BioFrontiers Institute and CU Boulder’s MCDB (Molecular, Cellular & Developmental Biology) department. Since my freshman year, I have been engaged in research with the lab, concentrating on transposable elements (TEs), DNA sequences capable of either cutting and pasting, or copying and pasting, to different parts of the genome. 

My project aims to assess whether there are any copies of BovB/L1-BT, two such TEs, left in the modern cow genome that have the capacity to jump on their own. We don’t know whether these sequences are still proliferating and having an impact on bovine evolution. 

I’ve also performed research in two other, non-CU Boulder labs. Both experiences were focused on immune cell development in the context of autoimmunity and Type I diabetes. 

Which organizations, clubs or volunteer work are you engaged in?
I’m a member of both CU Boulder’s Engineering Honors Program and the Presidents Leadership Class. I have also worked with CU Boulder’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders on a dam and water distribution system in Nepal. I am taking on mentorship roles both in my department and in PLC this academic year.

What accomplishments are you most proud of academically?
I am most proud of receiving the Astronaut Scholarship. I feel tremendously honored to have been recognized by the foundation for my undergraduate research and academic endeavors.  I am also very proud of having received both the outstanding sophomore and outstanding junior awards from the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. I worked incredibly hard for the academic standing that made me eligible for these awards.

What has been your biggest challenge during your engineering education?
My engineering classes require more application-based thinking, a greater sense of creativity and critical analysis, and an ability to extrapolate from fundamental principles into novel and situation-specific solutions than do most other STEM courses. Adjusting to this type of instruction and examination took serious work. 

What’s next?
I plan to pursue an MD-PhD or a PhD in molecular biology or immunology. 

Anything else you would like to add or share?
Simply that I’m honored to have been recognized by the ASF and to have been interviewed for this piece!