As an aspiring actress, Heather Lueck was adept at getting inside theheads of the characters she would portray. From her theater background grew afascination in psychology and neuroscience. But when her community collegeinstructors encouraged her to apply to UCLA, she was a little bit apprehensive.
"Since theuniversity is so large," said the native of Daly City, Calif., "I didn't expectto have personal contact with professors."
But within herfirst year at UCLA, the undergraduate found herself in a situation that wouldbe the envy of any graduate student: conducting original research alongside notone, but two, prominent scholars in her field.
Because of theseand other achievements, the graduating senior has been selected to give thestudent address during the annual graduation ceremony of the College of Lettersand Science.
To be held at 5p.m., Friday, June 13, at Pauley Pavilion, the event will attract 10,000 guestsand 2,800 graduating seniors and master's degree candidates.
Lueck is stilldeciding the topic of her speech.
She also was oneof three undergraduates honored last month by the College. Lueck, who has a3.96 GPA, received an Undergraduate Student Award as part of UCLA's CollegeAward Dinner held May 12 at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The award, established in1981, recognizes academic achievement and community involvement, and it is thehighest honor given by the College to an undergraduate.
"With ascholastic record that combines community service with original research,Heather represents what's so special and exciting about UCLA students and theundergraduate experience here," said Brian P. Copenhaver, College provost. "Weare thrilled that Heather will be our keynote student speaker at this year'scommencement ceremony."
As her senioryear concludes, the psychology major with a neuroscience minor is looking atlanguage acquisition among autistic children. Her research was conducted underthe direction of UCLA psychologist O. Ivar Lovaas, a pioneer in behaviorintervention for autistic children.
Lovaas saysLueck's research has opened up "a whole new area of research" in autism.
Lueck is alsoconducting cutting-edge research under the direction of UCLA neuroscientistMichael S. Fanselow, a leading authority in fear-conditioning, learning andmemory. Under his guidance, she is exploring the role in memory loss of damageto the hippocampus, a region of the brain associated with emotions and memory.
Lueck, whoseresearch has put her in direct contact with autistic children and their parents,dreams one day of melding her interest in autism with neuroscience. Inparticular, she would like to help illuminate neurobiology's role in thelanguage disorders to which autistic children are prone.
Understandingthe neurobiology behind autism "holds the most promise in helping these kids,yet it just hasn't been looked at," Lovaas said. "That's a major weakness inthe field."
A graduate ofMercy High School in San Francisco, Lueck is the daughter of Pamela K. Lueck, amedical transcriber, and John W. Lueck, a junior high school math and scienceteacher.
The College,which was founded in 1923, is the University of California's largest and mostcomprehensive academic organization. Eleven College departments are rankedamong the top 10 in the country by the National Research Council, which alsoranks 16 others in the top 20.
Lueck'sprofessors believe the Phi Beta Kappa who is expected to graduate summa cumlaude is well prepared for either of the two paths she is considering:traditional medical school training or a combined M.D./Ph.D. program.
Not bad for aformer actress who once thought that she would be more likely to play a doctorthan actually be one.
"Acting was always verymeaningful to me," she said. "But at UCLA, I've found a love for these childrenand a mission in trying to help them. I feel like I have a broader purpose."