Rachel Cliburn remembers combing through a scientific journal during her sophomore year at Baylor University, the authors page piquing her interest even more than the actual content of the article.
“I thought, 'It's someone's job to actually do this, just to find stuff out?'” Rachel said. “'That could be me!'”
The Long Grove native hasn't looked back.
Rachel, a 2008 Stevenson High School graduate, quickly embraced the life of a budding researcher and last year saw her talent and commitment rewarded in a big way with news she had been named a Fulbright student. The prestigious Fulbright U.S. Student Program offers fellowships for graduating college seniors, graduate students, young professionals and artists to study abroad for one academic year.
For Rachel that meant returning to a familiar place. The 22-year-old now lives abroad in the Netherlands working toward a master's degree in neuroscience.
She spent part of her junior year studying abroad with the Dutch at the University of Maastricht, the same institution where she recently completed the coursework component of her master's program. The old city of about 120,000 people is a former Roman settlement located in the southernmost part of the country.
“Part of being a Fulbright scholar is an ambassador's role, and as accomplished as she is academically, Rachel's just an incredibly nice, charismatic, impossible-not-to-like person,” said Charles Weaver, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor. “There's nobody better we should be sending abroad. She's going to do big things.”
Rachel made the most of Maastricht's location while an undergrad, using her four-day weekends to explore a new country and her break between classes to go on a two-mile run to Belgium and back.
Last semester's more intense schedule wasn't as conducive to traveling, so she immersed herself in local culture, every day riding the secondhand bicycle she painted yellow and joining a local rowing association that counts Olympic hopefuls among its membership.
Rachel, who started each weekday at Baylor with 5 a.m. crew practice, saw rowing in Maastricht as a way to meet people and stay in shape.
Though just about everyone Rachel encounters in the Netherlands speaks English — except for her landlord, with whom she communicates using Google Translator — her rowing teammates stuck to Dutch.
“They're very proud of their Dutch heritage, so all the meetings and emails and the actual rowing were in Dutch,” Rachel said. “I learned enough to be respectful and get by, but it was kind of intense.”
Just before the holidays, Rachel packed up her life in Maastricht and is now getting settled two hours north in Amsterdam, where she'll conduct research until returning to the U.S. this summer.
She'll focus on the neurobiological underpinnings of addiction, relapse and withdrawal, specifically which neurons in the prefrontal cortex of the brain are the basis for a drug-taking memory. She's excited to use the various technologies at her disposal, including an emerging technique known as optogenetics.
“I don't think it's realistic to cure addiction because the problem isn't just within the pathological pathways of the brain,” Rachel said. “But we can enable people who've struggled to have a more normal and healthy and productive life. That's the goal, I think, of this research.”
Rachel hopes to continue her research in addiction when she starts a Ph.D. program in neuroscience this fall at Emory University in Atlanta. She turned down similar offers from Columbia, Vanderbilt and the National Institutes of Health. It likely will take five years to complete the program.
“It's a commitment, but it doesn't really feel that way because it's always been what excites me,” Rachel said. “There's no dramatic story or illness in my family that sparked it; I just find it fascinating we can study the physical substrate of what helps us experience life as humans. I think that's so cool.”
When Rachel isn't sitting in a classroom or wearing a lab coat, she often picks up her ukulele. After playing piano and the viola most of her life, she was drawn to the instrument's quirkiness.
It brings out her creative side, such as her knack for songwriting. One particular favorite is a piece she performed as a teaching assistant in Baylor's Intro to Neuroscience class. The lyrics in a way doubled as a study aid.
“I'm sure my roommates in Maastricht thought I was a little strange, but I enjoy it,” Rachel said. “It's my stress reliever.”
Rachel, who recently started reading books in French to become fluent, makes the most of her waking hours. “She's always been a happy overachiever who enjoys life and doesn't waste a minute,” her mother, Nancy Cliburn, said. “She decides what she wants to do and she makes it happen.”
Her father, Perry Cliburn, agrees.
“I would say two things about Rachel,” he said. “First, God gives us all a certain number of talents, and God gave Rachel a whole bunch. Second, Rachel has been faithful to always use those talents.”
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