Three Emory College of Arts and Sciences juniors have been named Goldwater Scholars for 2022, the fourth consecutive year that multiple students have won the nation’s top scholarship for undergraduates in math, natural sciences and engineering.
Anish “Max” Bagga, Noah Okada and Yena Woo are among 417 winners chosen from more than 1,240 applicants from universities across the country. Emory has produced 45 Goldwater Scholars since Congress created the program in 1986 to honor the work of the late Senator Barry Goldwater.
Selected for their demonstrated excellence in coursework and research and for their potential to make a significant contribution in their chosen fields, each Goldwater Scholars will receive up to $7,500 per year for their studies, until they get his undergraduate degree.
“We are thrilled to see these Emory students recognized for their research achievements and future potential,” said Megan Friddle, Emory College National Scholarship and Fellowship Program Director. “Max, Noah and Yena all bring exciting multidisciplinary perspectives from the liberal arts and sciences to their work, approaching scientific questions with both intellectual curiosity and a strong commitment to improving the lives of others.”
Anish “Max” Bagga
Bagga ignored well-meaning advice that his strength in math was separate from the skills he would need to work in medicine.
Inspired by the disruption of the pandemic, the joint math and computer science major decided to tackle two separate projects: Building a computer model of how humans deliver thyroid hormones to tissues as part of research at the Rollins School of Public Health and the Emory School of Medicine, performing spatial analysis to see how well different animal hosts allow the flu virus to swap genes and create new strains.
He hopes to merge the virology-focused influenza project with his modeling skills to build a model that can show how influenza spreads, accumulates and dissipates in humans.
“For me, the beauty of applying math and computer science to medicine is that you can treat more than one patient at a time with your work,” says Bagga, who started his projects as a freshman at Oxford College. “I want to be the clinician who formulates a research-based treatment plan for my patients that could have impacts for people around the world.”
Rollins’ associate professor Qiang Zhang, whose specialty is environmental health and computational toxicology, invited Bagga to join his project to build predictive models examining the impact that different environmental endocrine disruptors have on human health. First, he had to build a model of how plasma and tissues in the body generally transport and absorb hormones.
Bagga began building the model of normal human physiology after discussing molecular structure and interactions with Zhang. The pair have since been able to run several scenarios, including one that shows how different plasma-binding proteins work to bring thyroid hormones into cells evenly and another that predicts how the circadian rhythm of thyroid hormones may come from. .
“He’s the only undergraduate student I work with, and his dedication is among the best I’ve seen of any student I’ve worked with,” Zhang said. “He has the ability to do this job and understand what’s important.”
Associate Professor Anice Lowen found Bagga equally resourceful in her work in her microbiology and immunology lab focused on the mechanisms of influenza A evolution. There Bagga constructed simulations of influenza reassortment to determine the effectiveness of birds, pigs and humans as hosts for this process which gives rise to genetic modifications of the virus. He recently completed a second study, developing and applying spatial models to examine reassortment in specific compartments in pig lungs.
“I don’t normally accept undergraduates, but Max has been very helpful and productive in advancing our research,” says Lowen. “He is very motivated and thoughtful in his work.”
Bagga reflects on how to combine her research experiences into a new project. He’s also engaged in his favorite activity outside of the lab — participating and traveling with Emory’s Model United Nations — and plans to start a nonprofit related to distributing COVID-19 vaccines.
“I always thought I wanted to be a neurosurgeon until I worked more with computational models which I think will have more impact in virology and infectious disease,” says Bagga, who plans to pursue a PhD. joint in medicine and doctorate. “I just want to apply my skills in a way that can help the most people.”
Okada, a double major in computer science, neuroscience, and behavioral biology, thought his love of programming would lead him to become a software engineer.
Then he suffered a brain injury in a high school wrestling accident. The patient explanations of the neurosurgeon during his long recovery have sparked new interest in brain function and the lack of resources for people with cognitive and neurological disorders.
Okada realized he could combine these interests when Daniel Drane, professor of neurology at the School of Medicine, mentioned in a guest lecture that a lab he worked in wanted to add virtual reality (VR) tools. to his research on epilepsy. Okada has worked in this lab since then, developing VR landscapes and memory paradigms that recreate real-world experiences that open up new options for neuroscience research.
“The fact that I can build an environment that puts people through the process of activating memory, it really brings the pieces together to fit our understanding of what can happen from a singular disruption in the brain,” says Okada.
Nigel Pedersen’s Epilepsy and Systems Neuroscience Laboratory focuses on the clinical evaluation and planning of electrode implantation for patients with uncontrolled epilepsy. Related research aims to capture intracranial recordings and stimulation, particularly in brain memory networks associated with epilepsy.
Okada’s project involved building 64 pairs of stages – with similar designs but different layouts – for 128 virtual spaces such as a museum gallery and a video game arcade. Asking patients to remember each space helps researchers better understand the mechanistic work that helps form memories and the meta-memory better known as deja vu.
“We built this from the ground up and Noah was involved from the start, making original contributions on what could easily be a university-level project,” says Pedersen, who included Okada in a case study article. released last year. “He’s been an important part of a very collaborative group.”
This group includes philosophers, psychologists and neuroscientists, specialists whose interest is to ensure that there is a humanistic center for such research. Okada’s Goldwater project, for example, will involve the integration of VR and intracranial recordings, but only after practical considerations such as finding the most comfortable VR headsets and techniques to reduce cyber discomfort during immersion.
Okada continues these cross-disciplinary conversations as a board member of the undergraduate research journal Gray Matters. He is also involved with Emory Entrepreneurship and Venture Management to nurture his interest in the business prospects of neurotechnology.
After studying the molecular neuroscience of the blood-brain barrier last summer with Mercedes Balcells at MIT, Okada plans to split up this summer between Stanford University and the California Institute of Technology, furthering her abilities with intracranial EEGs and the use and creation of VR paradigms. In the long term, the plan is to pursue similar research with a doctorate in cognitive neuroscience.
“It’s especially great because I can see a career in using VR technology to solve older problems that we’ve only been able to study in animal models,” Okada says. “We can now create the chance to have some of those experiences by studying them and asking some really interesting questions about what makes us who we are.”
Woo, a chemistry major with a minor in anthropology, convinced her dad to learn to say the alphabet backwards with her when she was just 10 years old.
It was her way of feeling that she was doing something, anything, as she watched her grandmother slowly slip into the fog of Alzheimer’s disease.
This commitment to action earned her a spot as a semi-finalist in the national Regeneron Science Talent Search competition in high school, when she conducted independent research on a compound believed to refold misshapen proteins affiliated with Alzheimer’s disease.
She has worked in Manuel Yepes’ lab at the School of Medicine since her freshman year, working to unravel how the plasminogen-activator system (an enzyme cascade known for its role in breaking down clots) and its inhibitors and activators might help the brain to heal after a stroke, injury or degenerative disease.
“I remember feeling so helpless, and I don’t want anyone to feel that way,” says Woo, who plans to pursue medical/doctoral studies. “Everyone has their own niche in how they can contribute to this world, and that’s what I feel called to do.”
As the Rollins Chair in Stroke and Imaging Research, Yepes is a physician-scientist who focuses on finding ways for stroke victims to recover. In 32 years of mentorship, he says he has never had such a motivated student.
For example, when the lab closed at the start of the spring 2020 semester, Yepes said Woo contacted her several times about work she could do remotely. She ended up being the second author of a review article with Yepes, on the role of plasminogen activator systems in neurological disease and injury.
This is one of three articles Woo has published, and a fourth is in the works. She also developed an immunohistochemistry lab protocol for working with 20-year-old chimpanzee brain tissue — complex and delicate work — to see if the healing proteins found in mice exist there.
“I’ve never seen anything like it, even from PhD students,” Yepes says. “She’s special because she knows what she wants and she’s very persistent in getting it.”
Woo plans to continue researching brain tissue in Yepes’ lab for his Goldwater project. She will also continue as a leader with the Emory chapter of Medlife and the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology before following a surgeon this summer for greater exposure to clinical work.
“In the long term, I want to develop therapeutics for Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases,” she says. “I’m really grateful to my family for supporting all of my ideas and for having the opportunity to pursue them.”