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A Keystone to Overcoming Doubt: Olivia Fisher’s Journey to Winning the Goldwater Scholarship

Olivia Fisher vividly remembers driving back to BYU after a family vacation on the East Coast. Her father was encouraging her to take the computer science (CS) classes that simultaneously enthralled and intimidated her. After realizing the processes in her current chemistry lab would be more efficient if they were computer-automated, Fisher debated declaring the CS minor. That’s when the counsel from her father to bridge the gap between chemistry and CS truly changed her life’s direction. He wisely told her, “If you don’t do it, nobody will.” That night, Fisher added the introductory computer science course to her registration and started on a journey that would eventually lead her to win the prestigious Barry Goldwater Scholarship. However, the challenge of overcoming her fear to take unfamiliar classes would not be Fisher’s last obstacle.

After making the initial jump of faith into new worlds of academic knowledge, Fisher identified a research group at BYU that she wanted to join. Suggestions from professors and mutual friends directed her towards the lab of Dr. Dennis Della Corte in the physics department. Fisher set up the initial interview to join his lab. Her lack of computational experience led Della Corte to gently, but constructively reject her application. Bolstered by her adopted mantra, “If you don't do it, no one will,” Fisher obtained permission from Della Corte to volunteer as an unpaid research assistant in his group. After attending lab meetings and conducting literature research relevant to their work for several months, she volunteered to present her findings. Della Corte was impressed seeing Fisher’s potential in action as well as the dedication she had put into learning the skills she had lacked. He invited her to join his lab where she has happily been ever since.

Although she is proud to be a part of the respected Della Corte research group, Fisher is honest about the challenges she faced to become a contributing member of it. Overwhelmed at first by imposter syndrome, she struggled with her self-confidence and the nature of her male-dominated environment led her to doubt if she truly belonged. Fisher was dedicated to work through every ounce of uncertainty, and she found unexpected but welcome aid from those around her to persevere and reaffirm her ability to meet the challenge.

In time Della Corte became her biggest advocate. He continually encouraged her to push the boundaries of her comfort zone and taught her the skill of identifying potential for success in other people. Wendy Billings, another member of the Della Corte lab and recipient of the Goldwater Scholarship, also developed this skill and helped Fisher to find her bearings in the lab through the onboarding process, as well as encouraging her to apply for the scholarship. With additional encouragement from several female graduate students, Fisher now feels inspired to pursue a PhD in the future. Just as her father emboldened her to bridge the gap between CS and chemistry, the mentors Fisher surrounded herself with motivated her to face her inhibitions.

Imposter syndrome was not the only uphill climb Fisher faced. Diagnosed with Biliary Atresia and chronic liver disease at birth, she believes her life is a huge miracle. Fisher shares, “I have had awesome experiences with the University Accessibility Center and gained so much respect for those suffering from disabilities of all kinds. My experiences helped me meet my husband, fuel my passion for science, and develop more compassion for those around me.” In the process, Fisher turned her unfortunate health circumstances into something that pushes her forward—inspiring her to the forefront of medical advancement—all while crediting her liver disease as the reason why she became interested in biochemistry.

The Goldwater Scholarship is a prestigious scholarship that is awarded to select college students nationwide. Its aim is to inspire the next generation in scientific research and requires a nomination from a national representative. The application process is rigorous and daunting to ensure quality applicants and ultimate recipients. Fisher applied her philosophy of overcoming self-doubt throughout the entire application and during the agonizing waiting period to find out if she would be awarded this nationally renown recognition. Receiving the news that she had been selected as the only BYU recipient of this year secured Fisher’s confidence that she could persevere and advance her field. Fisher plans to use the Goldwater Scholarship to “conduct drug discovery research at the intersection of computer science and biochemistry.” She is especially excited to use the funds to further the field of machine learning for disease pathway prediction, a pursuit that can potentially open new roads for artificial intelligence (AI) technology.

Fisher knows first-hand that making the effort to work hard is worth it. Inspired by the process of overcoming the obstacles that were placed before her, she now seeks to inspire others. In her role as president of the Women in Chemistry Club, Fisher is working toward empowering women in STEM. Her goal is to help others find the confidence they need to break through their self-doubts like she did. In hindsight, Fisher now knows her dad’s counsel was not only right for her, but it can also inspire others as well. After all, if we don’t strive to overcome the challenges we face, how can any of us help someone else do it too?