Four Emory undergrads win Goldwater Scholarship for math, science research

By April Hunt | Emory Report | April 13, 2021

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Emory students (L to R) Greg Kimmerer, Anna Voss, Ilakkia Anabayan and Jerry Tang have been selected for the nation’s top scholarship for undergraduates studying math, natural sciences and engineering.

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Four exceptional Emory students have won the nation’s top scholarship for undergraduates studying math, natural sciences and engineering, after having to conduct much of their research remotely, in unfamiliar facilities or in unfamiliar ways due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Emory College juniors Ilakkia Anabayan, Greg Kimmerer and Anna Voss and Oxford College sophomore Jerry Tang are among the 410 Goldwater Scholars selected from 1,256 nominees from universities across the United States.

It is the third consecutive year that Emory has four recipients of the prestigious award. Counting this year’s winners, 42 Emory students have received the honor since it was established by Congress to honor the work of U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater.

Selected for their intellectual prowess and potential for significant future contribution to their chosen fields, each Goldwater Scholar will receive up to $7,500 per year, until they earn their undergraduate degrees, to help pay the cost of tuition, fees, books and room and board.

“Despite the challenges presented by the pandemic, these four students have done an extraordinary job of adapting and flourishing,” says Megan Friddle, director of Emory College’s national scholarships and fellowships program. “The move to remote learning at Emory offered them the impetus to explore opportunities beyond our campuses and master new methods that enrich their original research projects.”

Ilakkia Anabayan

Anabayan came to Emory intent on conducting research as the necessary foundation of her goal to become a physician.

Her first-year research in the laboratory of Darwinian Neuroscience, headed by anthropology professor and department chair James Rilling, seemed ideal. There, she developed skills in fMRI research, looking at paternal responses to infants crying.

A summer internship in Stuart Friess’ lab at Washington University in St. Louis, where she had worked in a different lab as one of the top winners of the National Brain Bee, changed everything.

In the Friess Lab, she investigated secondary injuries following pediatric traumatic brain injury (TBI). Her project characterized relationships between antibiotic usage and severe TBI outcomes in children. Anabayan has since focused her research on pediatric TBI, with plans to pursue a joint MD/PhD.

“What’s so compelling in this field is that while there has been a lot of pre-clinical research and insight, there has, unfortunately, been a real lack of successful application in clinical treatment,” she says. “It’s really exciting to think about bridging that gap, conducting research in the lab and figuring out how to translate it to improve children’s lives.”

Following the eight-week internship, Friess recommended that she continue similar research by seeking out his mentor, Susan Margulies, chair of the Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory.

Anabayan was able to do preliminary work last year before the pandemic forced her out of Margulies’ lab. She continued her research (and her volunteer efforts as a student member of the Emory College Honor Council) remotely, working again in the Friess lab and enrolling in a seminar on brain injury with Donald Stein, the recently retired Asa G Candler Professor and Distinguished Professor of Emergency Medicine at Emory School of Medicine, to further understand TBI.

Her work in neurotrauma has resulted in a recent publication, a second paper under review and a review paper on TBI and the gut microbiome in preparation. 

Next fall, she returns to Margulies’ lab to examine alterations in the gut microbiome following repeated mild brain injury.

“Her work has such promise,” says Margulies, a global leader in the biomechanics of infant head injury. “It could lead to objective assessments for diagnosing TBI, which allows for a thorough investigation of treatments.”

Greg Kimmerer

The simple fruit fly may provide Kimmerer clues to the complex question he has been asking since high school: What mechanism drives our genes to switch on and off?

In this case, though, the fruit flies awaiting the Woodruff Scholar are not so simple.

Kimmerer created them by arranging a new DNA sequence and inserting it into fly embryos. That alone is graduate-level work, says Leila Rieder, who took the biology/applied mathematics double major on as a founding member of her lab during his first year.

It’s the next step – doing heat shocks on the insects with the new copy of DNA and checking for expression of the new gene – that could yield an understanding of how we initiate and maintain gene expression at the most basic biological level.

Kimmerer hopes to have a preliminary answer late next year.

“This is a huge amount of work, and if it were anyone but Greg I’d say they would not be able to complete it,” Rieder says. “He’s brilliant. With Greg, I wonder if he could do another project before graduating.”

Perhaps. Kimmerer has been conducting research in molecular genetics since high school, examining the downstream genetic effects of arsenic-induced cancer at the University of Kentucky.

Last year, he presented his work at the Allied Genetics Conference. When research labs closed, just as he had successfully created the new fruit flies, he focused almost entirely on computational biology projects that mathematically explain molecular research.

He plans on pursuing a doctoral degree in cellular or genetic biology, with a focus on research that has direct relevance on human health.

“If you look at any living organism, it’s an amazing and beautiful machine. Then you zoom in, and there is so much going on, making it all work,” Kimmerer says. “Understanding that micro level is exciting, because it has a direct impact on people.”

Jerry Tang

The pandemic and subsequent shift to remote research helped Tang pursue two distinct long-distance research projects from Emory’s Oxford College campus, where he is a sophomore.

One is a project with Zhiyong (Jason) Ren, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Princeton University, researching the development of cathode materials in microbial electrolysis cells. Tang had shown Ren the project during a summer advising course he took last year to bolster his interest in renewable energy from an engineering standpoint.

Tang was already working on that energy research when he reached out to Eri Saikawa, an associate professor of environmental sciences on Emory’s Atlanta campus, about opportunities there.

“I was blown away by him, because he was very sure he wanted to pursue a PhD but wanted to figure out exactly what kind of research most interested him,” says Saikawa, an interdisciplinary researcher with projects in areas as varied as atmospheric chemistry and environmental policy. “I wasn’t surprised he wanted to try regional climate modeling, since it is the most difficult project in my lab.”

Under Saikawa’s guidance, Tang is conducting greenhouse gas simulations in East Asia, a model to be used to inform decisionmakers about public policies designed to meet the Paris Agreement, to mitigate climate change.

He has had extra time to work on both projects because the pandemic also canceled winter sports. Tang is a point guard on Oxford’s basketball team. He expects to submit the fuel cell paper to engineering journals and complete model simulations for the regional climate this summer.

He also hopes to visit family in China before fall courses begin and he transfers to the Atlanta campus, most likely with a double major in applied mathematics and environmental sciences.

“I came to Oxford because I really wanted that emphasis on the liberal arts while also being a scholar athlete,” Tang says. “Now I’m discovering growth through different fields of environmental research opportunities, combining the natural, computational and engineering sciences.”

Anna Voss

Voss’ road to success in the emerging field of neurogenetics began with an email she sent far and wide, looking for a research job, when she was 14.

Only one professor responded. Michael Epstein director of the Center for Computational and Quantitative Genetics at the Emory School of Medicine, encouraged her to learn the high-level math and coding needed for the human gene mapping in his lab.

By 16, Voss had taught herself how to program in R and Python and learned enough calculus that Epstein hired her. She worked for the rest of high school on “dry lab” computational genetics, with her efforts recently published in Molecular Psychiatry.

As a first-year, she applied to do “wet lab” testing and analysis in the lab of Steven Sloan, who had been an assistant professor of human genetics for just a few months. Voss, a neuroscience and behavioral biology major, was one of Sloan’s first hires.

She has worked on graduate-level research into the star-shaped nervous system cells known as astrocytes ever since. Her current project examines if neurons send the message that initiates the formation of astrocytes in the developing brain.

“We deeply believe the astrocytes are the choreographers in the brain, and if they don’t come in on time, the entire dance is disrupted,” Sloan says. “Anna has spearheaded entire avenues of research into our understanding of how they develop, which we believe is key to many neurological disorders.”

The research is personal to Voss, who became interested in finding a genetic root for obsessive-compulsive disorder after her diagnosis when she was 12.

For her current project, she coded a heat map out of 20,000 genes last year, looking to predict what signals neurons secrete that relay a cue to radial glia to become astrocytes.

Building out the predictions required Voss to match genes with the specific messenger molecules. Before research labs closed last spring, she had found 10 such messengers, known as ligands, that appear to play a role in the cell transition.

She returned to the lab in January, conducting tests looking for molecular mechanisms that may explain the genetic switch for everything from Parkinson’s disease to schizophrenia to autism.

She expects to complete the project next year, while serving as president of the Emory Crew team and an active member of the Initiative to Maximize Student Development, an Emory effort to increase the diversity of the scientific workforce.

Then, the goal is a PhD in neuroscience, with a specific focus on genetic basis of neuropsychiatric disorders, and a career in research.

“I fell in love with research early, and I can’t imagine anything better than studying how genetics influence us,” Voss says. “There is nothing more interesting than understanding ourselves on a deeper level than we do now.”