Vanessa Shehu ’22 Wins Goldwater Scholarship

April 9, 2021

Vanessa Shehu ’22, who is majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology at Bryn Mawr, has received a prestigious Goldwater Scholarship to help fund her remaining undergraduate education.

The scholarships are awarded to sophomores and juniors who show exceptional promise of becoming the nation’s next generation of research leaders in the natural sciences, engineering, and mathematics.

Working in the lab of Assistant Professor of Biology Adam Williamson, Vanessa is researching three proteins that play key roles in the process of phagocytosis.

Phagocytosis—the process by which immune cells called phagocytes engulf and degrade pathogens, apoptotic cells, and cell debris—is critical to maintain healthy tissue, and dysregulation of this process is linked to autoimmunity, inflammation, and neurodegeneration. Phagocytosis is among the oldest immune cell signaling processes, preserved through evolution from ancient prokaryotes to all extant multicellular organisms. A better understanding of the process may be key to the development of the next generation of immunotherapies.

“I’d like to one day engineer immunotherapies in the lab,” says Vanessa. “I am so excited that the long-term application of this research is to synthesize phagocytes to destroy tumors cells and other harmful targets.”

From an early age, Vanessa has been drawn to science. But it was during her senior year of high school, when her grandmother (who was declared cancer-free in 2019) was diagnosed with Stage II non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, that her interest in learning about immunotherapies intensified.

“Since my grandmother’s illness, I have felt a restless conviction to learn about her disease,” says Vanessa.

As a senior, Vanessa began volunteering at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia where her grandmother received treatment, experiencing both the clinical and research side of cancer care.

“At Fox Chase, I met wonderful researchers and began to see biomedical science as an accessible career path for the first time.”

At around that same time, Vanessa made the decision to attend Bryn Mawr.

“Bryn Mawr felt like a place where I could grow in my knowledge in a collaborative environment,” says Vanessa. “It turned out I was right. All of the professors I have studied with have been incredibly supportive.”

In addition to Williamson, who “has been endlessly supportive of my pursuits,” Vanessa credits Associate Professor of Biology Monica Chander for her guidance and mentorship.

“During my first few years at Bryn Mawr, I was very anxious to gain my footing in the sciences and in research,” says Vanessa. “I came from a limited background in science during high school, so I struggled a bit from imposter syndrome as well as a bit of confusion with knowing how to navigate internships, research, post-grad plans, etc. My parents are not scientists nor academics, so having professors like Dr. Chander who could guide me throughout college has been a blessing.”

Other faculty and staff members who have been key to Vanessa’s success include Geology’s Katherine Marenco and fellowship advisor Ellie Stanford, who served on the Goldwater Committee; and Professor of Chemistry Bill Malachowski and Vanessa’s major advisor Lisa Watkins, lecturer in the Chemistry Department.

“If possible, I would also like to thank my best friend and fellow biochemistry major Karley LaBenne '22, who encouraged me throughout my application process, and finally my grandmother, Xhevrie Cepele, who is my driving force.”

Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Major