Abby Burtner selected to be 1 of 16 Churchill Scholars

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Abby Burtner, ’24, is the UW’s most recent Churchill Scholar.

by Danielle Marie Holland

UW senior Abby Burtner, ‘24, has been awarded the prestigious Churchill Scholarship in recognition of her outstanding achievements in the field of biochemistry. As a Churchill Scholar, Burtner’s next step is to complete a fully-funded master’s degree in pathology at Cambridge University.

The Churchill Foundation selected 16 exceptional students as Churchill Scholars from a pool of 121 candidates this academic year. This year’s competition highlights the dedication, talent and exceptional accomplishments of the scholars, setting the stage for an even brighter future in the STEM fields and scientific exploration.

Burtner came to the UW from her hometown of Olympia, WA, and will be graduating in spring 2024 with a B.S. in biochemistry with Interdisciplinary and Departmental Honors, along with minors in data science and chemistry. She got her start in research in Professor Sharlene Santana’s lab in the Department of Biology her freshman year and fell in love with the power of evolution to fine-tune and function on a macroevolutionary scale. By the end of her sophomore year, Burtner realized that a research career was the right fit for her through her work on computational biology projects supervised by Dr. Chris Law and Dr. Kelly Diamond.

As Burtner advanced in her college coursework, she became increasingly drawn to the microscopic level of life, leading her to join Professor Neil King’s group at the Institute for Protein Design in the Department of Biochemistry. There, she works on a project designing de novo proteins to bind toll-like receptors, key receptors that activate the innate immune system, for groundbreaking applications in vaccine development.

“The Churchill scholarship,” says Ed Taylor, vice provost and dean of Undergraduate Academic Affairs, “is a prestigious opportunity for Abby to continue expanding her biochemistry skills. This award reflects her capacity to draw from her research and the mentorship she’s experienced, to fuel her work toward a greater understanding of our world in critical ways. The UW’s research community and campus-at-large are proud of Abby and encourage her as she continues to live out UW’s mission at Cambridge.”

Burtner is a past recipient of the DAAD Research Internship in Science and Engineering (RISE), Goldwater Scholarship, Washington Research Foundation Fellowship, Mary Gates Research Scholarship, and has been an undergraduate research leader at the Office of Undergraduate Research. Burtner intends to chart a career pathway investigating immunological systems through a biophysical lens as a principal investigator at an academic or industrial research lab.

“Pursuing a master’s at the University of Cambridge,” says Burtner, “will help me achieve my goal of obtaining a Ph.D. in biophysics. By learning foundational immunological techniques and techniques at Cambridge, along with the experimental and computational biophysical approaches I’ve learned here at UW, I will be working toward solving medical issues with broad impacts such as vaccination and cancer immunotherapies.” As she prepares for life in the UK, Burtner is excited about learning biomedical issues of global importance in an international context.

“I feel incredibly honored to receive the Churchill Scholarship”, says Burtner. “I could not have made it to this point without the stellar mentorship and support from the King Lab and Santana Lab at UW, particularly from my mentors Chloe Adams, Dr. Chris Law, Dr. Kelly Diamond, Robin Heiringhoff, and PIs Dr. Neil King, Dr. Sharlene Santana, Dr. Murat Maga, and Dr. Dietmar Manstein from the various research labs I have had the pleasure to work in. I would also like to thank my excellent honors chemistry and biochemistry professors, particularly Dr. Andrea Wills, for inspiring me to love this field and see a future for myself here, and the Office of Merit Scholarships, Fellowships and Awards, particularly Robin Chang, for her excellent guidance and advice. Finally, I am so grateful for my family and friends, particularly those from the honors chemistry/biochemistry community here at UW — it is truly a wonderful place to be learning how to be a scientist.”

Outside of the lab, Abby is an officer in the student club Biology Students for Equity. She can often be found embracing the beauty of Washington state, be it hiking and skiing in the majestic mountains, or running across the city with the Husky Running Club, of which she was president her junior year.

The Churchill Scholarship application process is supported by the Office of Merit Scholarships, Fellowships and Awards (OMSFA), a program of Undergraduate Academic Affairs. OMSFA works with faculty, staff and students to identify and support promising students in developing the skills and personal insights necessary to become strong candidates for this and other prestigious awards.

This story was originally posted on Undergraduate Academic Affairs, January 23, 2024.