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Summit of Success

First Generation College Student Dayna Buitron of Caldwell Earns Top Scholarship

Dayna Buitron knows the inner workings of fruit orchards and agriculture fields of southern Idaho.

She knows them from the ground up, and in Spanish.

Now, the University of Idaho microbiology student is learning about the inner workings of single-celled yeast and the toxins they produce to kill other fungi. The research has helped her earn the Goldwater Scholarship, one of the nation’s most prestigious science scholarships for undergraduates.

Ever since she was a young girl, Buitron accompanied her parents, immigrants who are from the Mexican state of Michoacán and speak little English, to the orchards around Caldwell where she and her family tended to fruit and vegetables. It’s where she learned about planting, pollination, germination, budding and fertilization.

“My parents couldn’t afford a babysitter, so they took my brother and me to the fields with them,” Buitron said. “My first job was picking cherries.”

It didn’t strike her until much later, after she had exhausted her high school’s AP, dual credit STEM, and liberal arts offerings, that she had grown up surrounded by a deep understanding of biological systems.

Although she couldn’t name them. At least not in English.

“Everyone in the fields spoke Spanish so it was difficult to make the translations,” Buitron said.

Her brother, five years older, earned an engineering degree from U of I, and Buitron is working toward a degree in microbiology as an honors program student researcher in the College of Science’s Rowley lab. It was this research for which she received the 2024 Barry Goldwater Scholarship.

Dayna Buitron portrait.
Microbiology junior Dayna Buitron is this year’s Goldwater scholar.

In Associate Professor Paul Rowley’s lab, Buitron explores the interactions of virus-invaded yeast cells and the resulting toxin — called antifungals — that the infected cells produce. She explores how yeast toxins invade cell membranes of competitors to destroy their cell functions. The work is an ongoing investigation into antifungals and their potential to be developed as therapeutics. Buitron’s undergraduate research will appear in one of the many papers annually produced by the Rowley lab.

When she was named as a recipient of the Goldwater scholarship, Buitron called her parents to let them know.

Dayna embodies all that is best about a curious student. Paul Rowley, biology professor

“They have always supported my education and told my brother and me that we must go to college, so we can live a better life than them,” Buitron said of her mother and father who both have limited schooling; her mother finished the third grade and her father the sixth grade before migrating to the United States to work.

That was the mantra she heard almost daily from her parents growing up in a small, two-bedroom trailer house in an “impoverished” part of town, she said.

“Get an education. Live a better life than us,” she said. “They repeated that a lot.”

She heard it so often that she never considered an alternative route after high school. She knew she would go to college.

A white fungus grows in a Petri dish.
Buitron’s research explores the interactions of virus-invaded yeast cells and the resulting toxin — called antifungals — that the infected cells produce.

Buitron attributes her interest in biology to her love of animals and natural things learned in the fields and orchards where she helped her parents with their daily work. She remembers raising a rooster as a child that eventually became a pet.

“When it came time to butcher and eat it, I said, ‘No, I want to hear it sing some more’,” Buitron told her parents.

The rooster lived to be 7 years old.

Buitron brings that same passion for living things to the Rowley lab.

“Dayna embodies all that is best about a curious student. Eager to learn, excited about new ideas, but also willing to work hard to carve out results from challenging experiments,” Rowley said.

Her current research seeks to open new avenues to learn how fungus-killing toxins target different cells and the discovery of new toxins produced by baker’s yeast.

“She has worked hard to build critical resources and is now on an upward trajectory that I am sure will lead to new discoveries,” Rowley said.

Buitron was selected by the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation from a national pool of over 5,000 college sophomores and juniors. This year, only 438 students were awarded the Goldwater Scholarship. Buitron is one of only six scholars in Idaho to be selected this year and she’s the only one from U of I. The scholarship will cover the cost of tuition, fees, books, and room and board up to $7,500 for the senior year in college.

Brown liquid is pipetted into a Petri dish.
Goldwater scholar Dayna Buitron pipettes a brown liquid growth media into a Petri dish to grow the yeast strain Yarrowia lipolytica as part of her research in the Rowley lab.

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