June 22, 2010 — Catherine Hueston developed an early interest in language and linguistics. As a child, she learned Spanish, studied Latin and world literature; she also became an accomplished cellist, with a love for music, also a language.
As a student at Charlottesville High School, and later at Monticello High, she took Advanced Placement courses, then began taking Spanish and English courses at the University of Virginia through its School of Continuing and Professional Studies. By the time she was 15, she was a full-time U.Va. student and an Echols Scholar.
Last month, Hueston graduated from U.Va. – just a week after her 18th birthday – with a bachelor's degree in neuroscience, a distinguished studies major. She was the youngest graduate of the 2009-10 academic year.
"I came to U.Va. with an interest in how people learn languages, why languages are different across geographical locations, and why it is that we learn languages more easily when we are younger," she said. "So I came planning to study linguistics to perhaps answer some of those questions. But I've never been one of those people who knew what they wanted to do from an early age. I've always had many interests, and wanted to follow as many of them as I could. U.Va. has been a great place to do that."
During her first full-time semester, Hueston took an introductory course in neuroscience and became "intrigued" by the study of the brain.
"I discovered that linguistics asks the kinds of questions I was asking," she said, "but it was really neuroscience that answered the questions in a way that satisfied me; with the depth of detail that biology gives."
She found that the University offered many undergraduate research opportunities in labs, from the biology department to the Medical School. She became an undergraduate research assistant in the lab of cell biology professor Rick Horwitz, where she participated in hands-on research to better understand the workings of neurons in the storage of memory.
"Neuroscience is this giant, last unexplored frontier in biology," Hueston said. "There's so much to discover and it's endlessly fascinating. I can't believe people actually get paid to delve into the mysteries of nature and to test new ideas."
Hueston will continue to have plenty of opportunity to learn and discover. This fall she begins the pursuit of a Ph.D. in neuroscience at Duke University.
Her U.Va. adviser, biology professor Barry Condron, said Hueston has exceptional potential as a researcher.
"Running the neuroscience major puts me in contact with some of the best biomedical students at U.Va., many of whom go on to the very best graduate and medical schools," he said. "Amongst these, Catherine places very highly and this puts her into the 'truly exceptional' category. I know this from being her adviser, as well as from many hours in the classroom. I think she will go on to be a great leader in modern biomedical science."
While at U.Va., Hueston satisfied a love for music by played cello for the Charlottesville and University Symphony Orchestra, and even played alongside her high school cello instructor. She also volunteered as a classical music DJ at WTJU and was a member of U.Va.'s competitive ballroom dancing team.
She said she has had many influences: family, teachers, the Charlottesville community, the University.
"It was wonderful growing up here," she said. "The University gave me so many opportunities, and has brought so many special people to the community, including some of the inspirational teachers I had in high school.
"My positive experiences with the University at a young age made me very aware of what a great school U.Va. is, in so many different areas," she said. "The fact that it is right here – it was the perfect choice for me, and to be able to live at home while taking advantage of everything the University and the community have to offer."
Hueston said her family – mother Holly, grandmother Dellinda and younger sister Rita – have always provided a "wonderful" environment in which to learn and grow. "They encouraged me to push myself, to question everything, to make sure that what I was doing was really what I wanted to be doing, and always to do my best at everything I do. They've been an enormous influence in just saying, 'Are you interested in that? OK, go ahead and pursue it and we'll help you.'"
In the beginning, Hueston commuted between home and the University and was able each night to share good food and conversation with her family. During her final year, as a Spanish minor, she lived in U.Va.'s Spanish house, Casa Bolivar.
Hueston is not yet finished at U.Va. This summer she is studying spinal cord development in the lab of biology professor Sarah Kucenas.
"It's a powerful and wonderful feeling to be able to contribute to the human knowledge base," she said.
— By Fariss Samarrai