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Emory College scholar, community builder takes interdisciplinary pre-med path

By Steve Savage | Emory Report | May 8, 2018

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Eli Patt was inspired to be a doctor because of his sister, who was born mute due to epilepsy. After a class discussion about what it means to be human, he spent his undergraduate years exploring intersections of science, ethics and religion. Emory Photo/Video

Eli Patt arrived at Emory in fall 2014 from his native California with a clear-cut, pre-professional path in mind to prepare for medical school. But an early classroom experience began to reshape his thinking and approach to fundamental questions about life itself.

"My career goal has a lot to do with my older sister, Lara, who was born mute due to epilepsy. Many of my earliest memories were of time spent with her in the hospital. I think that really informed my desire to be a doctor — to help people,” says Patt, a neuroscience and behavioral biology major who graduates from Emory College of Arts and Sciences on May 14.  

His path took a detour during an Introduction to Cognitive Neuroscience class, where the professor asked what it meant to be human. “A classmate responded ‘to be able to talk.’ This was a difficult response for me because on the surface this definition excluded my sister. I began to wrestle with my own understanding of the question,” he says.

This struggle with ideas, with how to answer the fundamental question of what makes us human, drove his academic pursuits and a passion for bioethics. It made his expected path to medical school more complex and enriching as he took an interdisciplinary dive into the intersections of the sciences, ethics and religion.

From LA to Atlanta with a trip to India, too

This wrestling led Patt to seek a minor in religion. With Patt asking deeper questions, he traveled to Dharamsala, India, for a life-changing experience as part of the Emory Tibetan Mind/Body Sciences Summer Abroad Program in 2016.

While there, he distinguished himself as an intellectual leader.

“Eli is one of those people who others will sit up and listen to," says Arri Eisen, professor of pedagogy in biology and the Institute for the Liberal Arts, who led the program to Dharamsala. "They respect his knowledge, sense of humor and thoughtful leadership. He is someone who goes into a place and always lifts those around him.”

What Patt found in India was a world of study that supported what he had learned about science and the similarity of its methodology. However, it differed in the underlying philosophy as the cohort thought about such topics as holistic health and consciousness from a neuroscientific perspective, and debated how one’s perspective can bias assumptions and conclusions.

“The ability to reflect on the time I spent with the Tibetan monks has been pivotal for me; to really think about the role of science, religion and philosophy in that context has informed how I approach my own discipline,” he says.

Humble campus leader

The Robert W. Woodruff Scholar and Phi Beta Kappa inductee also managed to find a balance between serious academic pursuits and wide-ranging service, from enhancing social opportunities on campus to mentoring Atlanta high school students.

“Eli has left his mark. He is humble and understated and has served Emory and the wider community with pride and enthusiasm,” says Bridget Guernsey Riordan, Campus Life assistant vice president for alumni relations and parent and family programs.

An active yet behind-the-scenes leader, Patt helped introduce first-year students to the Emory community as a three-time orientation leader. He served as co-president of the Wonderful Wednesday moderators, helping to build on the popular campus tradition while expanding it.

“We felt something was lacking, something that could bring students together. We created Wonderful Wednesday After Dark as a way to boost excitement, give seniors and some juniors something to look forward to, while bringing the whole campus together, even if only for a few hours,” Patt says of the popular monthly evening events. 

He also served as treasurer of the Student Programming Council, a mentor for high school students in the Pipeline Program and as a member of his fraternity’s executive board.

“I’ve always cared about working to improve the communities I am part of,” Patt says. “Getting involved with the Student Programming Council and Wonderful Wednesdays was a great way to contribute to the Emory community in meaningful ways.” 

‘True researcher and critical thinker’

When Patt returned to campus after his time in India, he focused on using his study abroad experience as a means to bridge disciplines and ways of thinking.

“Eli is a true researcher and critical thinker,” says Daniel Dilks, assistant professor of psychology. Patt, an Undergraduate Fellow in Computations Neuroscience, has volunteered in Dilks’ research lab for the last two years.

“Eli is not simply satisfied with being told how to do something. He must fully understand the process, wrestling with difficult concepts until he is satisfied with his understanding of them. He has contributed to several studies in the lab and is in the early stages of his own experiment,” Dilks says.

Undertaking a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) experiment investigating face processing in adults, Patt is using a well-established “face inversion effect” in a novel way. Patt is testing his hypothesis that the most studied face-selective region (the fusiform face area or FFA) is responsible for basic face processing (e.g., discriminating a face from an object), while another face-selective region (the anterior temporal lobe or ATL) is responsible for face identification.

“Eli will be a co-author on at least one, most likely two, upcoming peer-reviewed publications because of this work — no small feat for an undergraduate student,” Dilks says.

Senior lecturer Kim Loudermilk who, with psychology post-doc Nicole Vargas, co-taught Patt in their interdisciplinary “What Does It Mean To Be Human?” class, says, “Eli’s ability to think outside his own disciplinary box impressed us. He was able to draw on a wide breadth of academic disciplines to contend with the many ethical questions the topic of our class raised and develop an eloquent, compelling thesis on what it means to be human.”

After Emory, Patt will attend the University of St Andrews in Scotland next year to pursue a master’s of science in evolutionary and comparative psychology (with support from the Charles Elias Shepard Scholarship for Graduate Study) before applying to medical school.

Reflecting on his Emory journey, Patt was asked how he would now answer the question of what it means to be human. Without missing a beat, he says, “the most novel human idea is that our society doesn’t need to be constrained by the limits of a definition of humanness. I don’t think there is one answer. The journey of life is a quest to assess, and constantly reassess, what it really means to be human to achieve an ever-inclusive society.”