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Melding interests across fields of study characterizes student ‘on the better side of awesome’
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Senior David Goldberg found ways to explore his interests in medicine, public health and computing while at Emory, leading to an outsized impact on campus and beyond.

— Kay Hinton, Emory Photo/Video

Unsure whether a pre-med science or business major would support his plan for medical school, David Goldberg decided to embrace uncertainty when he arrived at Emory four years ago.

He has since married his interests in medicine, public health and computing to have an outsize impact on campus and beyond. Goldberg graduates next month with highest honors in biology, having opened a new avenue of inquiry in immunology.

His new plan is to complete medical school applications while teaching Buddhist monastics with the Emory Tibet Science Initiative (ETSI) this summer in India. Whether that leads to a joint medical program with a PhD or other field is just as up in the air as what specialty he might pursue — and Goldberg couldn’t be happier.

“Being at Emory, and especially working with the monks, really helped me adopt the perspective to take everything one step at a time and take whatever comes,” Goldberg says.

“I’ve learned that if there is something that captivates my attention, I can enjoy following that wherever it leads me,” he adds.

That mindset led Goldberg to conduct biomedical research since his first year on campus, serve as an intern and volunteer at The Carter Center and pushed him to formalize a student tutoring and mentoring program for visiting Tibetan monastic scholars.

It all started when Goldberg followed advice from his brother Michael (who graduated from Emory College in 2018 with a biology degree and is now in medical school) to seek mentors in the health sciences as soon as he arrived on campus.

That’s how he met Bruce Levin, the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Biology elected to the U.S. National Academy of Science and the Royal Swedish Academy of Science.

Levin is a population and evolutionary biologist whose research includes computational modeling and experimental studies with bacteria to better understand the treatment of bacterial infections and control the spread of antibiotic resistance.

Goldberg regularly stopped by Levin’s office, frequently showing up to share lunch after happily reading every research paper and textbook the professor shared with him. After listening to Goldberg ask insightful questions and offer useful suggestions about the lab’s modeling and experiments, Levin invited him to join his team — a first for a first-year undergraduate.

Levin also oversaw Goldberg’s honors thesis, designing mathematical models and working with wax moth larvae to examine the ability of the immune system to treat staphylococcus infections.

“David is on the better side of awesome,” Levin says. “He is a socially responsible and caring human being with considerable skill and a great passion for doing theoretical and experimental research in the biomedical sciences.”

When he decided to learn more about public health, Goldberg drew on those computational skills as an intern in The Carter Center's Trachoma Control Program. He spent three months as an official intern and volunteered for nearly a year after, working to optimize data systems that monitor the success of global programs designed to reduce the leading cause of infectious blindness.

“One thing about coding is you occasionally get hit with error messages that are unhelpful in figuring out what is wrong,” says Andrew Nute, The Carter Center’s former data manager who is now conducting health research in Oregon. “That just stops some people, but not David. He loves the idea of figuring out how to build something as much as he does helping people, and he has unlimited potential to do really novel work because of that.”

Goldberg also took his passion for creating something new to the ETSI Peer Mentoring Program, where he built a formal tutoring structure for the Tenzin Gyatso Science Scholars, Buddhist monks and nuns who study Western science for two years at Emory.

He then designed a course that trains the monastics in research methods, leading to them joining research labs for the first time this fall, says Arri Eisen, a leader in the ETSI and teaching professor in the biology department and Emory’s Institute for Liberal Arts.

This spring, Goldberg submitted a paper that examines the mentoring program, and how to be mindful of cultural considerations in science curricula, to the International Journal of Science Education. He expects to hear about publication this summer, when he is teaching the latest cohort that will arrive at Emory in the fall.

“David comes up with ideas, talks about them and just makes them happen. That’s just the way he does things,” Eisen says.

That’s why he may also continue to work with Levin’s lab remotely next year, after uncovering something new in immune system dynamics while conducting his thesis research.

While testing four models of how the immune system would react to different treatment combinations, Goldberg spotted threads that appeared to be controlling the infection before he added antibiotics and phages.

The threads were extracellular traps, nets that immune system cells tossed around bacteria that, while not lethal, stopped replication. Goldberg completed the modeling work for his thesis, but a doctoral student in Levin’s lab plans further research into the mechanism.

“We’re not exactly clear how it works, but raises a lot of interesting questions about how we can control bacterial infections,” Goldberg says. “That’s why it’s important to keep your options open.”

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