But when her community college instructors encouraged her to apply to UCLA, she was apprehensive. "Since the university is so large," Lueck says, "I didn't expect to have personal contact with professors."
Within her first year at UCLA, the undergraduate found herself in a situation that would be the envy of any graduate student: conducting original research alongside prominent scholars. And her research experience was not confined to a lab: it included direct contact with autistic children and their parents.
Because of her research and other achievements, Lueck was chosen to give the student address during the June 13 graduation ceremony of the College of Letters and Science. The event attracts 10,000 guests and 2,800 graduating seniors and master's degree candidates.
A psychology major with a neuroscience minor, Lueck has been examining language acquisition among autistic children. Her research was conducted under the direction of UCLA psychologist O. Ivar Lovaas, a pioneer in behavior intervention for autistic children.
Lovaas says Lueck's work has opened up "a whole new area of research" in autism. Lueck dreams of one day helping to illuminate neurobiology's role in the language disorders to which autistic children are prone.
Understanding the neurobiology behind autism "holds the most promise in helping these kids, yet it just hasn't been looked at," Lovaas says. "That's a major weakness in the field."
Lueck has also been conducting cutting-edge research under the direction of UCLA neuroscientist Michael S. Fanselow, a leading authority in fear-conditioning, learning and memory. Under his guidance, she is exploring the role in memory loss of damage to the hippocampus, a region of the brain associated with emotions and memory.
Lueck was one of three recipients of the Undergraduate Student Award—the highest honor given by the College of Letters & Science to an undergraduate.
"With a scholastic record that combines community service with original research, Heather represents what's so special and exciting about UCLA students and the undergraduate experience here," says Brian P. Copenhaver, College provost.
Lueck's professors believe the Phi Beta Kappa student 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 a former actress who once thought that she would be more likely to play a doctor than actually be one.
"Acting was always very meaningful to me," she says. "But at UCLA, I've found a love for these children and a mission in trying to help them. I feel like I have a broader purpose."