Two Class of 2020 graduating seniors marked not just the end of four years of classes, labs, meals at campus cafeterias, and football games, they marked the end of undergraduate research projects dedicated to improving the lives of others.
For their efforts, Lauren Haacke of Virginia Tech School of Neuroscience was named the 2020 Virginia Tech Undergraduate of the Year, and won a 2020 Fulbright Scholarship, while Amber Abbott, a member of the Honors College and a microbiology major in the Department of Biological Sciences was named the 2020 College of Science Outstanding Senior.
Haacke’s forays into brain injury research and experimental neuroscience as a major were no accident. They were personal. She suffered a traumatic brain injury during a high school cheerleading practice. The 2013 accident dominated much of the rest of her high school days.
She suffered short-term memory loss. She had to relearn how to hold con-versations. She had to relearn how to read and write. Noise and light became unbearable. She was diagnosed with several chronic illnesses, including Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), which negatively impacts a person’s autonomic nervous system.
It was the myriad of unknowns as she underwent brain trauma treatment that inspired Haacke. “The doctors that were treating me were doing the best that they could, but they were guessing,” she added.
Haacke worked in the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC's Center for Glial Biology in Health Disease and Cancer with Harald Sontheimer. She took part in a $2.6 million study to help determine if traumatic brain injuries cause changes within the brain that lead to epilepsy.
As of publication, Haacke was awaiting a residency — supported by the Fulbright Scholarship — at the Rehabilitation Centre for Spinal Cord Injury at Heidelberg University Hospital in Germany.
Having grown up in Blacksburg, Abbott had an easy decision in choosing Virginia Tech Science.
“I have been surrounded by the culture of Ut Prosim my whole life and always knew I wanted to go to college here,” she said. Her research focused on herpes simplex viruses (HSV) in the lab of Andrea Bertke, an associate professor of infectious diseases in public health in the Virginia- Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech.
Abbott has published one paper as co-first author, was working on her second paper at graduation, and was to have her name on at least three other papers by summer’s end. Her main focus was on HSV in Alzheimer’s patients, and in HSV latency and reactivation. These projects earned her the 2019 Goldwater Scholarship.
Abbott traveled with VT Engage in 2018 to the Gay Men’s Health Crisis facility in New York, and heard personal accounts from people living with HIV/AIDS. She also visited the Dominican Republic in 2019, where she taught children in Muñoz about infectious diseases. “Both experiences made it clear to me that the development of better methods of fighting infectious disease is essential, and they provided a more personal motive to my work at the bench,” she said.
By the time of publication, Abbott was to be pursuing a Ph.D. in the Microbiology, Virology, and Parasitology Pro-gram at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. There, she said she could become involved in research into the coronavirus pandemic that shook much of the world in 2020. “I think the impact of COVID-19 has begun to show people the importance of vaccine research, as well as the importance of listening to science and health-care professionals,” Abbott said in May.
For expanded stories and video profiles on Lauren Haacke and Amber Abbott, visit, respectively: