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Two Emory College juniors receive prestigious Goldwater Scholarship
Julianna and Satvik

Emory College juniors Julianna Cruz and Satvik Elayavalli are recipients of the 2024 Goldwater Scholarship, the nation’s top scholarship for undergraduates in math, natural sciences and engineering.

— Photo by Kay Hinton, Emory Photo/Video.

Two exceptional undergraduate researchers in Emory College of Arts and Sciences have been named 2024 Goldwater Scholars, the nation’s premier scholarship for students of math, the natural sciences and engineering.

Juniors Julianna Cruz and Satvik Elayavalli are among 508 undergraduate scholars selected nationwide for this year’s award, which comes with $7,500 annually toward the cost of their undergraduate degrees.

Recipients represent the scientific talent needed to ensure the U.S. maintains global competitiveness and security, according to the U.S. Department of Defense National Defense Education Programs, which partners with the Goldwater Foundation for the award.

Both Cruz and Elayavalli have explored wide-ranging coursework and research experiences that allowed them to make significant contributions in the lab and write or co-author papers on their research. They join 49 previous Emory recipients of the scholarship since Congress endowed it in 1986.

“Julianna and Satvik embody the ideal of applying the liberal arts to embrace discovery and make a difference in the world,” says Emory College Dean Barbara Krauthamer. “We are incredibly proud of their well-deserved recognition as Emory’s latest Goldwater Scholars.” 

Julianna Cruz

Growing up as the daughter of Mexican immigrants in Texas, Cruz dreamed of becoming a doctor who understands how demographics affect health, especially in vulnerable communities.

Research opportunities first intimidated Cruz, who is also a QuestBridge Scholar. She focused instead on building connections through Emory FirstSTEM, the orientation program for first-generation students, and sampling broad coursework.

Cruz also dove into service work, helping Slow Food pack and deliver weekly meals to food-insecure Emory students and staff. She also volunteered as a medical interpreter at local clinics and a medical assistant at a charitable health care center in west Atlanta.

By the end of her first year at Emory, she decided a double major in anthropology and human biology and Spanish/Portuguese would build a secure pre-med foundation with the interdisciplinary study she craved.

Still, it was not until last year, with encouragement from a FirstSTEM mentor, that she successfully applied to become a research assistant in the competitive Undergraduate Clinical Scholars Program at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Given the short, nine-week timeframe, supervisor Jordana Cohen expected Cruz would complete only the first step of analyses in a study to determine whether arterial stiffness could be an early warning sign of cardiac events in patients with chronic kidney disease.

Cruz finished the first batch of work in a week, prompting Cohen to let her run the entire study. The models Cruz built showed a clear link between large-artery stiffness and abnormal heart rhythm in those patients.

The results have immediate clinical implications, which Cruz will present to doctors from around the world at the World Congress of Nephrology in Argentina. She will also be first author on an upcoming paper about the research.

“Because she thinks so deeply about the work she is doing and cares so much about this population, I think Julianna is going to help a lot of people with her work,” says Cohen, a nephrologist and associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Penn.

Since last fall, Cruz has analyzed additional non-pharmaceutical interventions for patients with chronic kidney disease, studying the effects of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) meditation in physician Jeanie Park’s human integrative physiology lab at the Emory University School of Medicine.

She plans to continue that work this summer, when she will begin recruiting Latinx patients with chronic kidney disease for her honors thesis. For that project, Cruz will conduct interviews to examine how factors such as ethnicity and citizenship status affect views on health care and biomedical research.

Cruz will juggle that work while also embarking on a global public health project next fall, when she will travel to India, South Africa and Argentina with the School for International Training. She also will be readying her applications for a joint MD/PhD program, a career path the Goldwater scholarship makes possible.

“I was in the midst of thinking that I should proceed with just medicine, because being first-gen and low-income, it would bring more stability faster,” Cruz says. “I’m so grateful for the Goldwater because it affirms that I can help my family and thousands more people in the long run if I also contextualize patient narratives in research.” 

Satvik Elayavalli

Elayavalli arrived at Emory certain of one thing: He wanted to avoid writing long essays as much as possible.

A major in chemistry seemed to fit the bill and provide a path forward to research and possibly medical school. In the fall of his first year at Emory, he found an undergraduate research role in biologist Anita Corbett’s lab.

Paired with another student, Elayavalli conducted genetic screenings, trying to identify suppressors of cancer-causing genes using a budding yeast model. He continued in the role during the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) program, inserting genes into mutated yeast cells eight hours a day for 10 weeks.

When he confessed to Corbett that he didn’t enjoy the pressure and repetitive nature of the work, she suggested he pivot to analyzing RNA-sequencing data generated in collaboration with Jennifer Spangle’s lab in Emory’s Winship Cancer Institute. At the time, no one in either lab could do that work.

Elayavalli, who cites numerical analysis and numerical optimization as his favorite courses so far, taught himself the computational skills required for that analysis by watching video tutorials and reading code documentation online.

He helped develop code that successfully characterized a specific mutation, earning him co-authorship on a manuscript under revision for the journal NAR Cancer.

Elayavalli has since declared a major in applied mathematics and statistics and is taking graduate-level math courses. He plans to pursue a PhD in applied math, certain now that his niche lies in computational research with real-world impact in oncology research.

“Figuring out what you don’t want to do is incredibly valuable,” says Corbett, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Biology and Emory College senior associate dean for research. “Because he was self-reflective, Satvik is now on the cutting edge of optimizing systems and developing the methods needed for the next stage of cancer research.”

Elayavalli’s foundational understanding of the science helped him secure a computational research role last summer at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. His primary work was developing a simulation for single-cell RNA-sequencing data as part of Ken Chen’s bioinformatics lab, but he also volunteered to help another researcher with statistical tests on a different project. Publications related to both projects are forthcoming, with Elayavalli as co-author.

He will apply machine learning to discover new methods to analyze medical images for his honors thesis. The work will be conducted with Anant Madabhushi, executive director of the Emory Empathetic AI for Health Institute and the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Emory University and Georgia Institute of Technology.

Elayavalli also plans to continue tutoring math and English as part of Emory Reads and helping behind the scenes with the Emory Composers Society, an outgrowth of working concerts at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts for two years.

Though he last performed a recital as a sophomore, Elayavalli also plans to enroll in piano courses until graduation, both as a stress reliever and a challenge.

“I think the reason I like math and the prospect of a career in this area is the same as piano,” Elayavalli says. “Both are solving puzzles where you have to figure out why something is going wrong or what will create an output in the specific way you need. It’s very gratifying to win the Goldwater for that.”

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