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Recent Emory graduate awarded prestigious Gates Cambridge Scholarship

Stepheni Uh is one of just 35 recipients nationwide for the Gates Cambridge Scholarship, which will fund her PhD research into the neurophysiological foundations of resilience in children growing up in poverty.

Stepheni Uh, a 2014 graduate of Emory College of Arts and Sciences, has been selected as one of 35 recipients nationwide for the prestigious Gates Cambridge Scholarship, which funds graduate study at the University of Cambridge in England.

The scholarship, established with a $210 million gift from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, covers all tuition and expenses for students who have demonstrated outstanding intellectual ability, leadership potential and a commitment to helping others.

Uh’s plan to pursue her PhD through Cambridge’s MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit embodies those characteristics. Her specific work will be on the neurophysiological foundations of resilience in children growing up in poverty, in the hopes of developing methods that promote mental and emotional stamina in children of all backgrounds.

That is a both a departure from and a culmination of her previous study, including her current role at the Center for Autism Research at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. There, she works with clients and is also helping to develop a centralized database for the various markers of autism, which could lead to earlier diagnosis and treatment.

“I’ve thought a lot about what I want to do, and ultimately it comes down to work that will promote well-being,” says Uh, who graduated from Emory with highest honors in neuroscience and behavioral biology (NBB) and a minor in ethics.

“Mine hasn’t been a straight road, for sure,” she adds. “But it’s very gratifying to see the interdisciplinary learning I had at Emory come together for what I want to do and be purposeful in life.”

Emory’s influence

That winding road started when Uh moved 2,000 miles from Boise, Idaho, to attend Emory. Her plan was a political science degree followed by law school and a career as a prosecutor or human rights attorney.

That all changed during her first year when, in an entry-level biology class, Uh reached out to the other student in her discussion group without a science-heavy background, so they could study together. The student was Sherab Tenzin, one of the first Tibetan Buddhist monks to study with the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative.

Tenzin’s fairly limited English challenged Uh to simplify the complex concepts being emphasized by the professor, Arri Eisen, but it was Tenzin’s questions about what the knowledge meant for humanity that shifted her focus from law school to a PhD in science.

A Google search of “neuroscience and law” sent her to neuroethics — and the program at Emory’s Center for Ethics. She went on to complete graduate-level neuroethics courses and conduct research in three neuroscience labs, two at Emory and one at New York University, on topics ranging from the neurobiological influence on paternal nurturance to the cognitive effects of cardiovascular exercise.

“There is so much pressure to study just one thing, and I can’t stress enough the impact Emory had on me realizing it doesn’t have to be that way,” Uh says. “I found it so incredibly clarifying to learn how so many fields come together, and need to, for there to be progress.”

Staying connected

Her honors thesis, on the relationship between disgust and decision-making, led to her being named a Robert T. Jones Jr. Fellow at the University of St. Andrews. In 2015, she earned a master’s degree in behavioral and neural sciences looking at the relationship between distaste, disgust and moral responsivity.

While there, she came across “Anatomy of Violence,” a book that questions the biological bases of crime. She drafted an email to author Adrian Raine, Richard Perry University Professor of Criminology and Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, but never sent it.

Months later, on a chance visit to Emory, Uh met with psychology professor Scott O. Lilienfield, who turned out to be close colleagues with Raine and put the two in touch. This led to her working with Raine for a year at Penn’s Center for Neuroscience and Society to create the first empirical self-report measure of selfishness.

That project and her previous work navigating across cultures, not to mention a fluency in Korean, contributed to her participation in the last year’s inaugural Global Neuroethics Summit in South Korea, says summit co-chair Karen Rommelfanger, director of the Neuroethics Program at Emory’s Center for Ethics.

 “I’ve told her that no one interesting I know has had a linear path,” says Rommelfanger, who mentored Uh during her undergraduate years and has remained in touch. “Her expertise has really built on her interests, and the best things have happened.

“As she scans the horizon of what’s possible, she thinks about the broader implications and the big picture,” Rommelfanger adds. “She’s the kind of candidate that Gates Cambridge will be fortunate to have.”

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