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Four Emory College juniors win elite Goldwater Scholarship
photo of  Jojo Liu, Yingrong “Momo” Chen, Maddie Hasson and Tamecka Marcheau-Miller

Emory College juniors (l to r) Jojo Liu, Yingrong “Momo” Chen, Maddie Hasson and Tamecka Marcheau-Miller have been selected as Goldwater Scholars, the nation’s leading scholarship for undergraduates studying math, natural sciences and engineering.

— Sarah Woods, Emory Photo/Video

Four extraordinary Emory College juniors — including two Oxford College continuees — have won the nation’s top scholarship for undergraduates studying math, natural sciences and engineering.

Yingrong “Momo” Chen, Maddie Hasson, Jojo Liu and Tamecka Marcheau-Miller are among 413 Goldwater Scholars selected for the premier award. They will each receive up to $7,500 per year toward the cost of tuition, fees, books, and room and board until they earn their undergraduate degrees,.

This year’s winners, who have made major contributions in labs and authored or co-authored papers on their research, all plan to pursue doctoral degrees in their respective fields. They join 45 previous Emory recipients of the award, which was endowed by Congress in 1986 to honor the late Sen. Barry Goldwater.

“We are immensely proud of Yingrong, Maddie, Jojo and Tamecka for having already made such significant contributions to their fields,” says Carla Freeman, interim dean of Emory College of Arts and Sciences.

“Their selection highlights Emory’s commitment to undergraduate research and opportunities for students to address some of the most pressing challenges affecting our communities, on campus and beyond,” Freeman adds.

Yingrong “Momo” Chen

Chen’s parents encouraged their daughter to explore everything she could when they immigrated to Seattle from China after she completed high school.

She took that advice with her to Oxford College. She dove into biochemistry research immediately, then realized her love of puzzles translated to a passion for programming and shifted to computational biochemistry research.

Chen, a chemistry major with a minor in computer science, completed three projects in two years. First, she developed her lab skills by studying partition coefficients of urea, mannitol and glycerol. Later, she examined the association of proteins in Alzheimer’s disease through the Emory School of Medicine. Then, using molecular dynamics simulation, she studied the role and structure of an inflammatory protein in psoriasis.

“Many times, smart people are afraid of trying and failing. Yingrong doesn’t have that fear,” says Deepika Das, now a professor at Syracuse University who mentored Chen in her former role as chemistry lecturer at Oxford. “She never stops wanting to try something new and challenging.”

That drive led Chen to introduce herself to Fang Liu, Emory College associate professor of chemistry, when both presented at the 2021 regional American Chemical Society meeting. Liu’s group focuses on quantum chemistry, a branch of the field that Chen had yet to study.

At first, Liu simply invited Chen to her lab to participate in meetings, discussions and literature readings. However, based on Chen’s growing mathematical skills, Liu assigned her a solo project last semester: run simulations on green fluorescent proteins to determine their efficiency for use in quantum batteries.

“She is very brave because she is taking something on that has never been done,” Liu says. “She volunteered to work on a riskier project that has more innovation because she is quite motivated to learn all the new concepts, even what she’s never heard about before.”

Last fall, Chen worked on a simulation of the fluorescent protein, without the environment of a quantum battery. She will continue the work for her honors thesis, trying to work out a way to simulate the protein in a quantum battery — a huge step in making the rapidly charging devices available for products like electric vehicles. She also has continued her biochemistry research since last summer when she joined the Meiler lab at Vanderbilt University, designing a project to study the immune response in Parkinson’s disease and coding for the protein modeling software Rosetta.

“My favorite thing about working with Momo is her enthusiasm and genuine interest in the scientific process,” says Benjamin Brown, a research assistant professor in the Meiler lab who has mentored Chen. “She naturally adopts responsibility for her work because she loves it, a hallmark trait of great scientists.”

Chen is excited about the breadth of her research, which will apply to a planned PhD in either computational chemistry or bioinformatics. In addition to the work, she plans to focus on improving her communication skills to convey her passion for combining computer science and natural science.

“I enjoy computational work because it is more than following a recipe,” Chen says. “You can’t reinvent the wheel, but there are many innovative twists if you dig into it. That is very exciting to me.”

Maddie Hasson

It seemed obvious that Hasson, who had long wanted to be a physician, would commit to learning the science behind treating the ACL she tore playing high school soccer.

When she found studies showing that hormone factors made women more susceptible to the injury, Hasson realized she was similarly passionate about orthopedic research. She emailed Jay Patel, an assistant professor of orthopedics, about working in his musculoskeletal repair and regeneration lab at Emory School of Medicine the summer before her first year at Emory.

Hasson, a double major in chemistry and anthropology and behavior biology from Ellicott City, Maryland, became one of the first members of the new lab that launched that fall. She has since worked on enhancing a common cartilage-repair procedure by examining the role of mechanics on the ability of marrow cells to form new cartilage.

She also co-authored a book chapter with Patel and is listed, with Patel and three other researchers, as co-inventor on a provisional patent application for that regeneration research.

“From day one — when she showed up having looked at the papers from the literature and said ‘based on what I’ve read, here is the next hypothesis and questions I have’ — Maddie has been running experiments,” Patel says. “She is by far the best undergrad I have encountered.”

Hasson’s research has yielded one promising avenue to explore further. Using bioactive factors can trick marrow cells to form better cartilage, which leads to better-functioning knees, ankles and other joints after surgery.

Hasson will next explore the mechanisms behind those results, which could be put in a pre-clinical animal model before she graduates.

That’s on top of her leadership work as a volunteer organizer with the Men Stopping Violence community nonprofit as well as her honors thesis in which she will test the same bioactive factors on human bone marrow samples.

In a throwback to her original ACL research, she plans to compare results based on gender and perhaps other demographic differences.

After graduation, she plans to pursue an MD/PhD, likely in epidemiology, toward a career in research and clinical care with an eye to equity in healthcare.

“I love and appreciate the work I do, because of how it can translate into patient use, and I don’t know that I would have had this opportunity anywhere else,” Hasson says. “I don’t want to be without the clinical aspect, too, because that is what inspires my research.”

Jojo Liu

Liu’s introduction to research wasn’t close to home. It was home.

He grew up going to the lab with his mother, Xiaowei Dong, admiring her experiments as she completed her PhD in pharmaceutical sciences. Liu, a biology major from the Dallas-Fort Worth area, convinced her to let him work in her lab at the University of North Texas Health Science Center by the time he was in high school.

For two summers, he learned his way around research by studying oral nanoparticles for cancer-drug delivery — and daydreaming about making his own discoveries.

That drive for novel work led Liu to join the immunotherapy lab run by Dr. Edmund K. Waller, the Rein Saral Professor at Emory’s Winship Cancer Institute during his first year.

With the academic year starting remotely, Waller assigned Liu a computational project that drew on thousands of records to compare two immunosuppressive proteins, known as VIP and PD-L1, as cancer biomarkers.

Liu’s work, which was published in the journal ImmunoMedicine, confirmed VIP as a pathway that cancer hijacks, allowing tumors to spread. That makes it a potential immunotherapy target for diseases such as pancreatic cancer, which are known to not respond to treatments that target PD-L1 alone.

“Jojo is diligent. He’s engaged,” Waller says. “This is doing research with real implications that add to a deeper understanding of the role of these pathways in cancer fighting and autoimmunity.”

Liu is building on that research and the biological fundamentals he developed by studying the role of epithelial-mesenchymal transition in cancer metastasis in the MD Anderson Cancer Center summer program with Sendurai A. Mani.

To see if removing both the VIP and PD-L1 pathways leads to severe autoimmunity, he has spent the last year breeding mice to create that unique model for his honors thesis.

Observing how the mice develop will advance his project, as well as serve as a launching point for a planned MD/PhD in immunology, with a focus on cancer drugs.

“I’m so incredibly grateful for all my mentors,” Liu says. “As a Christian, I continuously thank God that I have been blessed with so many opportunities to grow as a researcher and participate in all of this novel research. I’m slowly moving toward that dream.”

Tamecka Marecheau-Miller

Marecheau-Miller’s first lab experience was with Crystal Light. Grape, to be exact.

The Stockbridge, Georgia, native had limited research experience before arriving on the Oxford campus as a sophomore, having spent her first college year fully remote. She knew she enjoyed chemistry, though, so she jumped at the chance when Oxford chemistry professor Brenda Harmon invited her to test experiments for use in introductory chemistry courses.

The research — to purify a compound from the powdered drink mix — resulted in Marecheau-Miller being able to isolate caffeine. It also demonstrated how her skill and interest in methodically going through possible combinations to find something that works is especially useful in medicinal chemistry.

Marecheau-Miller’s biology professor, Sarah Fankhauser, also observed her determined and methodical approach to investigating soil microbiomes in a course-based research project.

“Tamecka approached this project with an enthusiastic seriousness,” Fankhauser says. “She was passionate about the research but critical, as a scientist should be, of the findings and the potential impact of her work.”

Marecheau-Miller, a double major in chemistry and French studies, has been applying that passion since last summer in chemistry professor Bill Wuest’s lab, which focuses on the synthesis of natural products in a bid to develop new therapeutics.

In her first project, she synthesized diastereomers of analogs of a compound. While the project is on hold for another lab to explore the synthesized analogs’ activity, Marcheau-Miller began working on an effort to create an inhibitor to the human OAS-1 gene, which controls a protein that cleaves RNA and helps beat back viral infections. The latter project is funded by Emory’s Biological Discovery through Chemical Innovation initiative, designed to accelerate research across multiple fields.

“Tamecka is very intentional and deliberate, and she asks all of the right questions as she goes,” says Wuest, a Georgia Research Alliance Distinguished Investigator. “These are graduate-student-level projects she’s working on and excelling.”

Even with a double major — her interest in French stems from Grenada, her parents’ home country in the Caribbean — Marecheau-Miller plans to continue that research for an honors thesis.

Most recently, she has been working on synthesizing analogs of an inhibitor scaffold that will fit into the enzyme-binding pocket of a key player of human immunity. Success could be a step toward the development of an oral drug, making treatment more readily available to patients with antibody deficiencies who cannot access the existing, and expensive, infusion treatment.

Marecheau-Miller credits mentors in the Wuest lab, including graduate students Ryan Allen and Jeremia Learnmore, and in Emory’s Institute for Maximizing Student Development for helping guide her rapid climb in research. The experience has driven her interest in becoming a research professor after earning a PhD in chemistry or biochemistry.

“I was kind of late to the game, and I had a lot to learn, but one of the real appeals of research is that you learn more every time you ask a question,” Marecheau-Miller says. “Every question builds on the next, and you can always ask the next one. Just seeing all of the questions unfold is what makes it all so interesting.”

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