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Emory College senior applies engagement in humanities to accomplishments in scientific research

Senior Pushkar Shinde uses his Emory experiences — from studying interdisciplinary ethics and compassion to playing on the tennis team — to connect humanities insight to immunology research.

When Pushkar Shinde came to Emory as a first-year student, he immediately stood out as an undergraduate researcher who excelled in the lab of biomolecular chemist Khalid Salaita.

As his work to understand the biomechanics of the immune system and other chemistry research was being published and earning him a Goldwater Scholarship as a sophomore, Shinde also has used his time in Emory College of Arts and Sciences to dive into interdisciplinary research that helps his scientific work connect more directly to the human experience.

Now as he completes his senior year as a chemistry major, the Oregon native is applying to joint MD/PhD programs that he hopes will deepen that interdisciplinary bond with more knowledge of the body’s mechanisms and the lived experiences of people who need care. His goal is a career in internal medicine and immunology research.

“I think it’s a testament to the coursework at Emory that a lot of what we study asks the really serious questions of what is health and also what is the role of you and your story in health,” Shinde says. “To solve a lot of the challenges that bring people to medical care, you can’t just turn to biomedical answers without considering the whole person. I’m grateful for Emory and my mentors to challenge me to think this way.”

A Robert W. Woodruff Scholar, Shinde has focused his lab work on understanding the “secret handshake” that T cells in the body’s immune system make when deciding if foreign substances are friend or foe.

He figured out a unique approach to continue that research when the pandemic hit and pushed him from Salaita’s lab. Shinde set up a computer cluster at his home and used it to run the molecular dynamic simulations of the DNA probes he had meant to do in person.

Salaita consulted with a theoretical chemist to confirm that the remote research, which required both programming and calculating parameters for the simulations, was correct. It was, and is now the basis of Shinde’s honors thesis.

“I am personally incapable of doing that, and somehow Pushkar figured it out,” says Salaita, who is supervising Shinde’s thesis. “He is remarkable.”

While tackling such complex scientific questions, Shinde declared a minor in ethics to explore what it could mean if his research helps with cancer therapies and vaccines.

His dedication to understanding the humanities led him to the Interdisciplinary Exploration and Scholarship (IDEAS) program, where he sought and directed discussion about health and humanity as an IDEAS Fellow.

Shinde later studied compassionate thought and meditation in his travel with the Emory Tibet Science Initiative. The experience prompted him to begin developing games that would teach the social-emotional principles behind those contemplative practices to elementary-school children in metro Atlanta when he returned. That project is ongoing.

“I think why he has been so successful is the thoughtful and caring way he considers both the social and cultural components as well as biological and medical components that define us and our health,” says Robyn Fivush, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Psychology and director of the Institute for the Liberal Arts, which houses IDEAS. “Pushkar is just a very special person.”

Shinde’s work ethic extends to the Emory men’s tennis team, where he was only the second student Coach John Browning invited as a walk-on player. Shinde rose to become team co-captain, where he was always the person giving the final speech in the team huddle before matches.

“He had the uncanny ability of saying what the team needed to hear at that moment,” Browning says. “Normally, it's the coach who is supposed to make an impact on his players, but in Pushkar’s case, he’s been the teacher. I have never met a more unselfish, humble person.”

Shinde shies from the praise, calling each endeavor an opportunity to shape his curiosity. Emory, he says, helped him learn how to unite experiences into something that feels meaningful and fulfilling.

“What sticks out to me are the people at Emory, my peers and my mentors, who challenged me to think differently and understand the world in different ways,” he says. “Paying attention to how people think and act is necessary if you want to help and heal, which is what I want to do in the long run.”

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