Four Emory College students win Goldwater Scholarship for math, science research

For the second year in a row, four exceptional Emory College students have won the nation’s top scholarship for undergraduates studying math, natural sciences and engineering. 

Taylor Dover, Krishna “Ananthu” Pucha, Kim Sharp and Pushkar Shinde are among the 396 Goldwater Scholars chosen from more than 1,343 outstanding applicants across the United States.

They each receive up to $7,500 per year, until they earn their undergraduate degrees, to go toward the cost of tuition, fees, books and room and board.

“This year, Emory College had a record number of applicants for the Goldwater Scholarship, and our nominees represented the extraordinary depth and breadth of research opportunities in the Emory community and beyond,” says Megan Friddle, the College’s director of national scholarships and fellowships. 

“We are thrilled to see these four students receive this kind of national recognition for their work and for their potential as scholars and researchers,” she adds. 

Congress established the prestigious award in 1986 to honor the work of U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater. Including this year’s winners, 38 Emory students have received the honor since 1989.

Selected for their intellectual prowess and potential for significant future contribution to their chosen fields, Emory’s Goldwater Scholars this year conducted graduate-level research in the math, chemistry and biology that help form the basis of new therapeutics, especially timely work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

All four recipients plan to pursue doctoral degrees in their respective fields.

Taylor Dover: A chemistry professor in the making

Dover, a first-generation college student from rural Alabama with a chemistry and math double major, entered Emory without any research experience. 

Now a junior, he has since conducted extensive research in chemistry professor Frank E. McDonald’s synthetic organic chemistry lab, as part of a collaboration with an ophthalmology research laboratory in the Emory University School of Medicine. 

This year, Dover has been working on an independent project to isolate the mirror image forms – known as chiral biomolecules for their right-handedness and left-handedness – of a compound that their collaborators previously discovered in screening a collection of compounds for potential pharmaceutical treatments.

In animals, the compound appears to provide protective and healing activity in trauma-damaged retinas. The research to tease out the chiral molecules could pave the way for the development of new drugs to treat those injuries. 

“He’s facing a challenge first in how to tell which of the mirror images we have before then seeing if we can synthesize it to see if it is stable enough to eventually test as a therapeutic,” McDonald says. “Taylor has the perfect blend of curiosity, organization and intellect to work this out.” 

For Dover, that means each success will create a new challenge. Tackling those challenges requires more than what he can learn in a classroom or a lab.

To broaden his perspectives, and wind down his brain, he makes time to attend the Emory Missional Community, practice tae kwan do and volunteer with ChEmory and the Bread Coffeehouse.

It is that volunteer work, his service as a teaching assistant in several chemistry courses and his commitment as a mentor in both STEM Pathways and the 1915 Scholars Program, that made him realize he wants to become a chemistry professor, focused broadly on the synthesis needed to put new drugs on the market. 

“I find this so incredibly fascinating that it drives me to want to share it,” Dover says. “The beauty of becoming a research professor is I get the opportunity to help people get excited and explore what interests them in the same way I’ve been able to explore, and the opportunity to continue learning throughout my life.” 

Ananthu Pucha: Bridging the gap between bioengineering and patient care

In high school, Pucha envisioned a career as a sports doctor and reached out to orthopedics researchers before even arriving on campus. 

He joined Nick Willett’s Regenerative Lab, where instead of training to tend to athletes on the sidelines, he began working on cellular-based therapies that could help patients with osteoarthritis and major bone defects. 

Pucha, a junior majoring in neuroscience and behavioral biology, still plans to become a doctor. But he also plans to pursue the PhD that gives him the opportunity to continue the biotechnology research he hopes will aid future patients.

“He will be an incredible doctor because he will be the rare physician who really understands treatments at their basic engineering and technical levels,” says Willett, assistant professor of orthopedics in the School of Medicine, a mechanical engineer by training who focuses on biomedical research. 

Pucha helped considerably with data image processing on research examining stem cells as a treatment for osteoarthritis, and earned a listing as an author on the final paper.

He is the first author on a paper, now in secondary review, based on his own research on sex differences in a rat-model of osteoarthritis, Willett says.

As a Petit Undergraduate Research Scholar, Pucha is also researching immune-modulation of stem cells in a new project. The work has implications in osteoarthritis as well as in a variety of diseases marked by over-active immune systems. A computer science minor, he is also working to develop computer models that he can use to identify trends in his research. 

Outside of the lab, Pucha dances with the Emory Karma Bhangra team in its showcases. But his also uses that time to elevate his teaching skills, working as a teaching assistant in undergraduate biology labs and tutoring at a local Mathnasium and at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. 

“I find teaching is the best way to break down barriers and really connect with people, and research can be the basis for that,” Pucha says.

Kim Sharp: A focus on fundamental chemistry for big-picture impact 

Sharp’s devotion to researching reactivity and synthesis – the fundamental chemistry questions with broad pharmacological and therapeutic impact – stems only in part from a passion for science. 

A junior, she also loves the stories and details in literature and visual art – her specialties as a member of the Emory QuizBowl team – and considered a German minor after learning the language in high school and an exchange trip.

It’s that combination of intellectual curiosity and creativity in thought processes that make her the ideal researcher in Simon Blakey’s organic chemistry lab, experimenting with new ways to form carbon-nitrogen and similar chemical bonds at the heart of drug development.

“To synthesize knowledge and be able to think about it in new ways is a skill itself,” says Blakey, professor of chemistry. “Kim is fantastic because she has all of that, plus persistence. She’s a phenomenal team player and a team leader.”

Sharp’s specific work is in organometallic methodology, researching carbon-hydrogen bond functionalization using rhodium catalysts. Expanding this area of chemistry to new systems will enable efficient synthetic routes, improving drug production.

She conducts her research in between time carved out for QuizBowl and jiu jitsu, an activity that Emory College senior Sarah Hunter, a Goldwater Scholar last year, introduced to her. 

She also is active with She’s the First, a campus group that fundraises to help provide K-12 educations for women in India, Kenya and Peru. One of the women who attended a school that the Emory program supports recently earned a master’s degree in a neuroscience field.

Sharp plans a PhD for herself, still focused on research related to organometallic methodology and the drug synthesis work she’s done since her first year on campus.

She spent last summer examining a C-H amidation reaction from a different viewpoint after being selected for the Center for Selective C-H Functionalization’s NSF-funded International Research Experiences for Students (IRES) program. She traveled to South Korea to work in the lab of Mu-Hyun Baik, to conduct the computational work needed for an analysis of a reaction, to get a better understanding of what made the reaction work.

“I was happy to learn computational chemistry because it’s a whole base of knowledge I can apply to other areas of chemistry I’ll encounter in the future,” Sharp says. “It would always be nice to stumble on a catalyst that works well but what would be awesome is being able to intentionally make a transformation better.”

Pushkar Shinde: Asking ‘the question of questions’

Shinde, a sophomore and Woodruff Scholar, joined biomolecular chemist Khalid Salaita’s lab as a first-year student last year and immediately began asking questions.

That in itself is unusual. Most undergraduates keep quiet until they are sure they follow the complex research that melds biology, physics, math, engineering and chemistry in a bid to map and measure cellular mechanics.

Even more rare were Shinde’s contributions, such as his questions in a lab meeting discussing the question of how T cells decide to activate the immune system.

Salaita had already provided the first direct evidence that T cells, which scour the body looking for problems, give a tiny tug on other cells to determine if they are friend or foe. Salaita was discussing the theory that mechanics somehow help with that discrimination when Shinde raised the question that is now the basis of his research project.

“He had this refined way of asking, is what matters the force or the energy, meaning the force times the distance,” Salaita says. “It’s going to be interesting to see what he does in the project and how he proceeds, and it’s exciting to see him grow and develop as a scientist.”

Shinde was able to begin the project’s initial design work just before spring courses were moved to remote learning. He can design the probes to measure the DNA but cannot begin actual testing until he’s back in the lab.

The work is a fundamental study to understand the mechanical forces in T cell response – information that can be used to improve cancer therapies and vaccines.

Shinde, a chemistry major, is especially excited about the potential impact as well as the opportunity to conduct research that requires broad knowledge across the natural sciences and math. He also plans to incorporate how the work intersects with ethics – his minor – and the humanities.

He has honed those interdisciplinary skills as a fellow in IDEAS, a selective program that encourages learning and thinking across fields, and as service chair of the Good Vibe Tribe, a club that emphasizes compassion and holistic wellness techniques. He also plays on the men’s varsity tennis team.

“I’m very grateful to be in a lab where the question of all questions is being asked – why does your immune system behave the way it does – and the way we pursue the answers is so intersectional,” says Shinde, who plans to pursue a PhD in chemistry. “It’s really exciting to have this opportunity.”

by April Hunt

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