Guitars, brain behind prestigious scholarships for UC Davis students

Lauren Keiko Salinero with guitar
Lauren Keiko Salinero with guitar

Belief in the power of guitar music and a quest to understand the mind have motivated two UC Davis students who have been awarded prestigious scholarships.

Lauren Salinero of Mountain View, California, will use a $10,000 Donald A. Strauss Scholarship to establish a program to teach Sacramento-area veterans to play the guitar.

Atrin Toussi of Rocklin, California, will use a $7,500 Barry Goldwater scholarship — the nation’s most prestigious undergraduate award in mathematics, natural sciences and engineering — to continue her studies for a career in research.

In the annual rite announcing major scholarship winners, two other UC Davis students from California received honorable mentions: Jessica West of Shasta Lake for the Goldwater scholarship, and Jessica Jones of Rohnert Park for the Udall Undergraduate Scholarship.

Guitars for Vets

Salinero, a biotechnology major aiming to become a reconstructive surgeon, is one of 14 recipients of the competitive Strauss Scholarship that supports community service projects of juniors and seniors at selected California universities.

She wants to share with veterans what she's come to know and love about the guitar over 11 years of playing it. "The guitar has two main powers," she said, "the ability to take you outside of yourself and your day-to-day worries, and the ability to bring people together."

Later this month, Salinero will start a chapter of Guitars for Vets in partnership with the national, nonprofit organization and the Sacramento VA Medical Center.

Participants will receive private guitar lessons once a week for 10 weeks and monthly group lessons with other participants. Upon graduation, they will be given a guitar of their own.

Salinero said the program helps address the post-traumatic stress disorder and depression that some veterans experience. "Something as simple as a guitar can make a major difference in the life of a veteran struggling with these conditions," she added.

Salinero looks forward to serving people as a doctor. She volunteered at a hospital throughout high school, was a holiday volunteer at her local veterans medical center, helped plan the Mountain View Relay For Life for three years and interned at the UC Davis Health System last summer.

"While I don't yet know how to repair a cleft palate, regenerate severely burned tissue or restore functions to an injured hand, I do know how to rally community support, coordinate the local operations of a nonprofit and play the guitar," she wrote in her scholarship application. "These are skills I can use to make a difference in people's lives today."

Outstanding undergraduate research

Toussi, a fourth-year student double-majoring in neurobiology, physiology and behavior, and religious studies, is one of 260 scholars nationwide to be awarded a Goldwater scholarship to encourage second- and third-year students to pursue research careers.

Her double major is the result of her lifelong interest in the mind, specifically how the brain shapes our consciousness. "Just one molecule, one genetic mutation, or one small change in experience during development can alter a personality,” she said.

Toussi has worked in professor Hwai-Jong Cheng’s lab at the UC Davis Center for Neuroscience throughout her university studies and is currently conducting research on molecular and cellular mechanisms for the guidance of axons, or nerve fibers.

She plans to incorporate her interests in science and religion in her pursuit of a medical degree or doctorate.

Honorable mentions

Jessica West, a junior majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology, has received a Goldwater honorable mention.

Jessica Jones, a junior majoring in community and regional development, has been recognized as an honorable mention for the Udall scholarship. Last year, she was named a Udall Scholar while studying at Santa Rosa Junior College. The scholarship is awarded to 50 sophomore and juniors on the basis of commitment to careers in the environment, American Indian health care, or tribal public policy, as well as other factors.

The Undergraduate and Prestigious Scholarships office at UC Davis assists high-achieving students to apply for 24 of the most prestigious national and international scholarships. 

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Julia Ann Easley, General news (emphasis: business, K-12 outreach, education, law, government and student affairs), 530-752-8248,

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