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Three Emory College juniors named 2022 Goldwater Scholars
Emory University Goldwater Scholars Anish “Max” Bagga, Yena Woo and Noah Okada

Juniors (left to right) Anish “Max” Bagga, Yena Woo and Noah Okada have been named Goldwater Scholars, one of the nation’s top scholarships for undergraduates studying math, natural sciences and engineering.

— Emory Photo Video

Three juniors in Emory College of Arts and Sciences have been named Goldwater Scholars for 2022, the fourth consecutive year that multiple students have won the nation’s top scholarship for undergraduates studying math, natural sciences and engineering.

Anish “Max” Bagga, Noah Okada and Yena Woo are among the 417 recipients chosen from more than 1,240 nominees from universities across the country. Emory has produced 45 Goldwater Scholars since Congress established the program in 1986 to honor the work of the late Sen. Barry Goldwater.

Selected for their demonstrated excellence in coursework and research and for their potential for significant contribution in their chosen fields, each Goldwater Scholar will receive up to $7,500 per year for their studies, until they earn their undergraduate degrees.

“We’re thrilled to see these Emory students recognized for their research accomplishments and future potential,” says Megan Friddle, director of the Emory College National Scholarships and Fellowships program. “Max, Noah and Yena all bring exciting multidisciplinary perspectives from the liberal arts and sciences to their work, tackling scientific questions with both intellectual curiosity and a strong commitment to improving the lives of others.”

Anish “Max” Bagga

Bagga ignored well-intentioned advice that his strength in mathematics was separate from skills he would need to work in medicine.

Inspired by the pandemic disruption, the joint major in math and computer science decided to tackle two distinct projects: Building a computational model of how humans distribute thyroid hormones to tissue as part of research at Rollins School of Public Health and, at Emory School of Medicine, conducting spatial analysis to see how efficient different animal hosts are at allowing the flu virus to exchange genes and create new strains.

He hopes to merge the virology-focused influenza project with his modeling skills in order to build a model that can show how the flu spreads, accumulates and dissipates in people.

“To me, the beauty of applying math and computer science to medicine is you can treat more than one patient at a time with your work,” says Bagga, who began his projects as a first-year student at Oxford College. “I want to be the clinician who formulates a treatment plan through research for my patients that could have impacts for people all around the globe.”

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 disrupting chemicals have on human health. First, he needed to build a model for how the body’s plasma and tissue typically transport and uptake the hormones.

Bagga began building the model for normal human physiology after discussing the structure and molecular interactions with Zhang. The pair have since been able to run several scenarios, including one that shows how different plasma-binding proteins work to get thyroid hormones into cells evenly and another that predicts how the circadian rhythm of thyroid hormones may originate.

“He is the only undergraduate I work with, and his dedication is among the best I’ve ever seen among all students I have worked with,” Zhang says. “He has the ability to do this work and understand what is important.”

Associate professor Anice Lowen found Bagga similarly resourceful in his work in her microbiology and immunology lab focused on the mechanisms of influenza A evolution. There, Bagga built simulations of the flu’s reassortment to determine how efficient birds, pigs and humans were as hosts to this process that gives rise to genetic changes in the virus. He recently completed a second study, developing and applying spatial models to examine the reassortment in specific compartments within pig lungs.

“I don’t typically take on undergraduates, but Max has been really helpful and productive in moving our research forward,” Lowen says. “He is very self-motivated and thoughtful in his work.”

Bagga is considering how to combine his research experiences into a new project. He also is committed to his favorite activity outside the lab — participating and traveling with Emory’s Model United Nations — and is weighing starting a nonprofit related to COVID-19 vaccine distribution.

“I always thought I wanted to be a neurosurgeon until I worked more with computational models that I think will have more impact in virology and infectious disease,” says Bagga, who plans to pursue a joint MD/PhD. “I just want to apply my skills in a way that can help the most people.”

Noah Okada

Okada, a double major in computer science and neuroscience and behavioral biology, figured his love of programming would lead to becoming a software engineer.

Then he suffered a brain injury during a high school wrestling accident. The neurosurgeon’s patient explanations during his lengthy recovery sparked a new interest in both brain function and the lack of resources for people with cognitive and neurological disorders.

Okada realized he could combine those interests when Daniel Drane, a neurology professor at the School of Medicine, mentioned during a guest lecture that a lab he worked in wanted to add virtual-reality (VR) tools to its epilepsy research. Okada has worked in that lab since then, developing VR landscapes and memory paradigms that recreate real-world experiences that open new research options in neuroscience.

“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 may be happening from a singular disruption in the brain,” Okada says.

Nigel Pedersen’s epilepsy and systems neuroscience lab focuses on the clinical evaluation and electrode-implantation planning for patients who have uncontrolled epilepsy. The related research aims to capture intracranial recordings and stimulation, especially in the brain’s memory networks associated with epilepsy.

Okada’s project involved building 64 pairs of scenes — with similar designs but different layouts — for 128 virtual spaces such as a museum gallery and video arcade. Asking patients about recall of each space helps researchers better understand the mechanistic work that helps form memories and the metamemory best known as déjà vu.

“We’ve built this from ground up and Noah has been involved since the beginning, making original contributions on what could easily be a graduate-level project,” says Pedersen, who included Okada on a case study paper published last year. “He has been an important part of a very collaborative group.”

That group includes philosophers, psychologists and neuroscientists, specialists whose interest is in ensuring that there is a humanistic center to such research. Okada’s Goldwater project, for instance, will involve integrating VR and intracranial recordings, but only after practical considerations such as finding the most comfortable VR headsets and techniques to reduce cyber sickness during immersion.

Okada continues those interdisciplinary conversations as a board member of the undergraduate research Grey Matters journal. He is also involved with Emory Entrepreneurship and Venture Management to feed his interest in the business prospects of neuro-technology.

Having studied the molecular neuroscience of the blood-brain barrier last summer with Mercedes Balcells at MIT, Okada plans to split this summer between Stanford University and the California Institute of Technology, furthering his abilities with intracranial EEGs and the use and creation of VR paradigms. Long-term, the plan is to continue similar research with a cognitive neuroscience PhD.

“It is especially great because I can see a career using VR technology to tackle older problems we’ve only been able to study in animal models,” Okada says. “We can now create the chance to live some of these experiences as we study them and ask really interesting questions about what makes us who we are.”

Yena Woo

Woo, a chemistry major with a minor in anthropology, convinced her father to learn how to say the alphabet backwards with her when she was just 10.

It was her way of feeling she was doing something, anything, as she watched her grandmother slowly slip into the haze of Alzheimer’s disease.

That commitment to action earned her a semifinalist spot in the national Regeneron Science Talent Search while in high school, when she conducted independent research into a compound thought to refold the misshapen proteins affiliated with Alzheimer’s.

She has worked at Manuel Yepes’ lab in the School of Medicine since her first year, working to untangle how the plasminogen-activator system (an enzymatic cascade known for its role in breaking down clots) and its inhibitors and activators might help the brain heal after a stroke, injury or from degenerative diseases.

“I remember feeling so helpless, and I don’t want anyone to feel that way,” says Woo, who plans to pursue an MD/PhD. “Everyone has their own niche in how they can contribute to this world, and this is what I feel I’m called to do.”

As the Rollins Chair in Stroke and Imaging Research, Yepes is a physician-scientist focused on finding ways for stroke victims to recover. In 32 years of mentoring, he says he’s never had such a driven student.

For instance, when the lab shut down early in spring semester 2020, Yepes said Woo repeatedly contacted him for work she could complete remotely. She ended up second author on a review paper with Yepes, on the role of plasminogen-activator systems in neurological disease and injury.

It is one of three papers Woo has published, and a fourth is under review. She also developed an immunohistochemistry lab protocol for working with 20-year-old tissue from chimpanzee brain — complex and delicate work — to see if the healing proteins found in mice exist there.

“I’ve never seen anything like her, even from doctoral fellows,” Yepes says. “She is special because she knows what she wants and she is very persistent in getting it.”

Woo plans to continue her research on brain tissue in Yepes’ lab for her Goldwater project. She also will continue as a leader with Emory’s chapter of Medlife and the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology before shadowing a surgeon this summer for more exposure to clinical work.

“Long-term, I want to develop therapeutics for Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases,” she says. “I’m really grateful for my family in supporting all my ideas and for the opportunity to pursue them.”

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