Micah Olivas and Alyssa Rivera want to find ways to treat cancer and other diseases.

The Fresno State junior and sophomore biochemistry majors have immersed themselves in research from the moment they stepped on campus. Now, their passion to ask questions and discover answers just got a big boost.

Olivas and Rivera were among 496 undergraduate students nationwide awarded the 2019 Goldwater Scholarship for showing exceptional promise of becoming the next generation of natural sciences, mathematics and engineering research leaders.

The winners were selected from 1,223 nominees submitted by 443 universities from a pool of more than 5,000 students. Only six students from the 23-campus California State University system received the honor. They will each receive a scholarship of up to $7,500 a year.

“It is quite remarkable that two students from the same California State University campus have been selected for this prestigious, and very competitive, award in the same year,” said Dr. Saeed Attar, director of the Smittcamp Family Honors College at Fresno State and professor of chemistry. Olivas and Rivera are Smittcamp Scholars.

“This type of recognition speaks volumes to the dedication of Fresno State’s faculty members in mentoring their students,” Attar said, “as well as the hard work of our talented Smittcamp Family Honors College Scholars and the significant contributions they have made (and continue to make) to help raise the status of Fresno State in national arenas.”

Olivas, a Hanford native, originally planned to pursue a medical degree but got a taste of biomedical research and was hooked.

“I can observe really important dynamics, measure the pathology of a disease and make contributions to the well-being of my community” in a lab, Olivas said. Since then, “I’ve been infatuated with modeling biological mechanisms.”

At Fresno State, Olivas is working with Dr. Laurent Dejean in the Department of Chemistry to research how small particulate matter in Valley air causes cell stress in the lungs. Last summer, Olivas developed genetic editing tools for use in the study of tumor dormancy through a fellowship with the Pharmacology and Cancer Biology department at Duke University.

In June, he starts another fellowship at Stanford University to continue this work. Olivas plans to pursue a doctoral degree and post-doctoral training in molecular cancer biology with the hope of conducting research at a university.

Rivera, from Fresno, is studying how natural products can serve as potential anti-cancer treatments with Fresno State organic chemistry professor Dr. Qiao-Hong Chen. She started in Chen’s lab as a curious high school student who wanted to learn something new. Coincidentally, Rivera’s mother battled leukemia years ago.

“I’m very interested in pharmacology, drug discovery and overall, how medicine affects the body,” Rivera said. “I really like discussing that and thinking about solutions.”

Rivera will spend the summer preparing for the Medical College Admission Test and continuing her research in Chen’s lab. She plans to pursue her doctorate of medicine and of philosophy to serve as a physician scientist in pharmacology.

She wants to thank chemistry faculty and her graduate research mentor for their help and encouragement.

“The talented and dedicated faculty and staff of our college are central to providing a supportive environment for our students to grow and thrive,” said Christopher Meyer, dean of the College of Science and Mathematics at Fresno State.

“These results reinforce our approach to providing cutting-edge educational experiences for our students,” he said, “to best prepare them for the exciting and diverse science, technology, engineering and mathematics career opportunities of the 21st century.”