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Emory’s Noah Okada named Quad Fellow for work applying AI to neuroscience research
Kay Hinton/Emory Photo Video

Emory student Noah Okada is one of only 100 global winners of the new Quad Fellowship.

— Kay Hinton/Emory Photo Video

Emory College senior Noah Okada is among 100 exceptional scholars selected for the inaugural cohort of Quad Fellows, a global network of thinkers working across science and technology to solve real-world problems.

The first-of-its-kind scholarship, whose winners were announced Friday, is a joint initiative of the governments of Australia, India, Japan and the United States. The award includes graduate study at leading science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) universities in the U.S., as well as access to funding, cross-cultural exchanges and workshops on themes such as the intersection of ethics and innovation.

Okada, a double major in computer science and neuroscience and behavioral biology from Osaka, Japan, will represent his home nation in the program.

He plans to pursue a PhD that allows him to expand his research at the intersection of artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality and neuroscience, which won him a Goldwater Scholarship last year. His doctoral focus will be on pinpointing and modeling neural circuits that drive mental and cognitive illness.

“Understanding the circuitry that drives emotional, fear and anxiety responses addresses a core human problem,” Okada says. “I think the international collaboration component of the Quad Fellowship is the key unique factor that will enable us to translate these discoveries very quickly across the globe.”

From a brain injury to brain research

A brain injury from a wrestling accident in high school pushed Okada to understand what was happening in each region of his brain, including and beyond the injury. Once planning to become a software engineer, Okada arrived at Emory intent on applying his programming knowledge to a deeper understanding of neuroscience.

“Noah Okada’s story is remarkable,” says Emory President Gregory L. Fenves. “He turned the adversity of a frightening injury into inspiration for his scholarship in neuroscience and AI. He is everything we hope for in an Emory student — brilliant, talented and committed to using his knowledge to help others. I can’t wait to see all that he will accomplish as a Quad Fellow.”

He began his research journey as a first year student, developing virtual-reality (VR) landscapes and memory paradigms in the lab of Daniel Drane, a neurology professor at the Emory School of Medicine. His work allows researchers to understand the mechanics of forming memories, which has implications in treating neurological disorders such as epilepsy and in examining questions of neurophilosphy, such as the experience of déjà vu.

“Noah has the capacity to be a superstar in the field for years to come,” Drane says.

“He has a unique combination of abilities, which one doesn’t often find in a single person. His communication skills, he entered Emory with an advanced knowledge of computer programming, he is rapidly learning all about neuroscience, and he has faith in something more than science, along with his personal experience of recovering from brain injury,” Drane adds. “This drives Noah to push beyond the task at hand with a passion to figure out how things work and to really help others.”

Okada has continued his research, and been a co-author on two papers with a third in review, as a scholar with the Emory Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD). On campus, he has also served as a research ambassador, worked as a committee member of the University Senate and been on the executive board of the undergraduate research journal Grey Matters.

Okada also conducted cognitive neuroscience research beyond Emory. He interned last summer at the neuroscientist Dean Mobb’s lab at the California Institute of Technology and continued remotely afterwards, gamifying his VR paradigms to study fear and anxiety behaviors using fMRI experimentation.

He also developed similar VR systems in Josef Parvizi’s lab at Stanford University last summer. There, Okada worked directly with patients who would experience simulations of daily living in the artificial reality while intracranial electrodes monitored their brain activity.

The technical work also required human care that ensured patients were comfortable enough that researchers could model their brains for possible surgery down the road.

“Noah’s creativity, self-awareness and research skills enable him to truly embody Emory’s mission to create, preserve, teach and apply knowledge in the service of humanity,” says Megan Friddle, director of the Emory College National Scholarships and Fellowships Program in the Pathways Center, which supports all students throughout the application process for major awards. “We are excited for his opportunity to share his research across multiple contexts and cultures as a Quad Fellow.”

Mercedes Balcells, a principal research scientist at MIT, recruited Okada to her lab last year to develop a blood-brain barrier model to understand how the brain reacts to inflammation.

When that internship ended in 2021, Okada and Balcells continued to meet weekly. He later prepared the research protocols for a soon-to-launch study that examines data from wearable devices for possible connections to anxiety and depression. Okada is a co-author on a review paper about the data collection effort.

Balcells is eager to continue working with Okada on his graduate work.

“Noah is so humble that he once apologized to me about his hand ability with pipetting because of the side effects of his brain injury,” Balcells says. “That’s not slowing him down. He is everything you want in a researcher: a gentle personality with the skill and ability to shine while still being a team player.”

Applying disruption to discovery

Okada has mostly recovered from his injury, though he still suffers from migraines. He sees that personal experience as additional knowledge to his research into the systems-level and molecular-level changes behind the complexities of cognitive function.

“I remember trying to share what I was experiencing, and no tests would show my deficits. The cognitive and emotional tests seemed normal but I would have days where I was not at all,” Okada says.

“My goal is to help show how everything is interconnected in our brain so that we can know how to help patients in recovery from an injury or in need of any treatment from surgery, medication or behavioral therapy,” he adds. “All of these pieces have to come together if we want to understand what may be happening when there is a disruption in our brains.”

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