Portrait photo of UC Davis psychology major with Goldwater Scholarship logo
Lynnette Hersh, a junior majoring in psychology, has been named a 2022 Goldwater Scholar. (Courtesy photo)

Student Autism Researcher Named a Goldwater Scholar

A UC Davis psychology major who hopes to someday work as a clinical psychologist with clients on the autism spectrum has been awarded a Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, the nation’s leading scholarship for undergraduates pursuing research careers in the natural sciences, mathematics and engineering.

Lynnette Hersh is one of two UC Davis students and among 417 sophomores and juniors nationwide selected from a pool of more than 5,000 applicants to receive the prestigious STEM scholarship, established by Congress in 1986 to honor the late U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater.

Hands-on research experience

Intent on pursuing autism research, Hersh began working as a research assistant in the laboratories of two UC Davis psychology professors in summer 2021, about three months before she transferred to UC Davis with the support of a Regents Scholarship. The graduate of Vista del Lago High School in Folsom, California, previously spent two years taking classes at all four Sacramento area campuses in the Los Rios Community College District.

In cognitive neuroscience labs directed by psychology department chair and Professor Susan Rivera and Distinguished Professor Steven Luck, Hersh quickly moved into roles normally reserved for more experienced research assistants, or even graduate students — using sophisticated eye tracking and brain activity recording and decoding methods, as well as interacting directly with study participants.

Hersh has also jumped into a number of other activities — all while maintaining a 4.0 grade point average:

  • Volunteering for three mental health helplines — Crisis Text Line, National Eating Disorders Association and The Trevor Project.
  • Teaching social skills to 11- to 13-year-olds on the autism spectrum through a program at the UC Davis MIND Institute in Sacramento.
  • Tutoring community college students in English and psychology.
  • Peer advising members of the Transfer Research Society and participating in University Honors Program panels to inspire other transfer students to become researchers.
  • Organizing a community of more than 100 UC Davis transfer psychology majors on a popular messaging app.
  • Hosting an advocacy website and a social media account with body-positive art for those coping with severe eczema and other skin conditions.

“My goal always aligns with my strongest value, which is helping others. If I have the knowledge and resources that could make any positive difference in someone’s life, it brings me immense joy to share that, so they can facilitate it and help others do the same. It’s a ripple effect that can bring so much meaning to what you do.” — Lynnette Hersh

Focus on neurodiversity movement

While Hersh assists with faculty studies in cognitive neuroscience, her independent research focuses on the neurodiversity movement, which opposes attempts to cure autism and other neurodevelopmental disabilities and instead advocates for inclusion, equality and respect for neurodivergent individuals.

Her current study explores views of over 500 autistic and nonautistic people (including autistic adults, parents of autistic children, and autism professionals and researchers) regarding intervention and how these views are shaped by closeness to autistic people with intellectual disability and nonspeaking autistic people.

People on the autism spectrum have wide-ranging abilities, challenges and needs. One-size-fits-all interventions can sometimes lead to mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, Hersh said. "Insights of those who are impacted by autism regarding the best ways to support autistic people could enhance the social acceptability of autism interventions," she said.

Further research is needed to determine opinions within the community on what methods work best for differing needs. “I plan to be a part of that mission,” said Hersh, who aims to pursue graduate studies in clinical psychology after graduating from UC Davis next year.

She encouraged other UC Davis students to apply for the Goldwater Scholarship, which provides up to $7,500 for college expenses. “Sometimes if you look at the previous Goldwater Scholars, you get really intimidated. They've done amazing things that are very STEM-oriented. Give it a shot. I was really hesitant and then I still came out with the scholarship.”

— Kathleen Holder, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science


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