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Four Emory College juniors win elite Goldwater Scholarship for math, science research

Emory College juniors Austin Lai, Michael Mu, Sarah Hunter and Liz Enyenihi have been selected as Goldwater Scholars, the nation’s leading scholarship for undergraduates studying math, natural sciences and engineering. Emory Photo/Video

All four Emory College juniors nominated for the Goldwater Scholarship, the nation’s premier scholarship for undergraduates studying math, natural sciences and engineering, have been selected to receive the honor. 

Liz Enyenihi, Sarah Hunter, Austin Lai and Michael Mu are among 496 Goldwater Scholars chosen this year from across the United States, out of more than 5,000 applicants. 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 is very exciting for these students, who are exceptional, and for our scientific community,” says Emory College biology professor Anita Corbett, who has worked with several winners and mentored Enyenihi in her lab as an undergraduate researcher studying RNA processing and RNA binding proteins.

Congress established the prestigious award in 1986 to honor the work of U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater. Including this year’s winners, 34 Emory students have received the honor.

This year’s Goldwater Scholars conducted graduate-level research ranging from studying genetic mutations behind childhood diseases to analyzing enzymes necessary for neural function. All four recipients plan to pursue doctoral degrees in their respective fields.

Liz Enyenihi: Plans for a PhD in biochemistry

Enyenihi, who is majoring in chemistry, was co-author on a published paper studying an RNA binding protein in cancer cells while still in high school. She joined Corbett’s lab in the fall of her first year at Emory.

A Woodruff Scholar, Enyenihi has modeled RNA exosome malfunction in a budding yeast model system to explore why the mutations in the genes that encode components of this complex cause such distinct, sometimes fatal, diseases.

“Liz has laid the groundwork for understanding how these mutations impact RNA exosome function,” Corbett says. “She is amazing.”

Enyenihi will conduct protein research this summer at Yale University as an Amgen Scholar, before returning to Corbett’s lab for her honors thesis next year and pursuing plans to obtain a PhD in biochemistry.

She has balanced her academic interests with social justice issues on campus, volunteering with Project SHINE and as a STEM Pathways mentor. Her doctoral degree will ideally combine her passions, with a planned study of how variants in the microbiome may be linked to racial health disparities.

“It will be interesting to elucidate what is happening in, say, black maternal mortality rates, and very gratifying to help,” Enyenihi says.

Sarah Hunter: Genetics, environment and behavior

Hunter, a neuroscience and behavioral biology major, had only ever worked at an ice cream shop and as technical assistant at Theater Emory when, as a sophomore, she entered psychiatry professor Brian Dias’ lab studying the effects of stress on mammals at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center.

Within three months, she was running her own experiments, having learned how to navigate complex equipment and work with mice for an experiment studying the intergenerational influences of stress.

“She was always making progress, which was incredible to see,” says Dias, an assistant professor in the School of Medicine's Department of Psychiatry. “She is truly a rising scientific star who has great promise to make significant contributions to neuroscience in her career.”

On campus, she has been active in the Emory Astronomy Club, Club Jiu Jitsu and Outdoor Emory, while also volunteering at the Wesley Woods senior complex.

Residents there offer a different perspective, something Hunter hopes to embrace in pursuit of a PhD that allows her to better understand the ties between genetics, epigenetics, environment and behavior.

“I want to know what extent do you have control over your behavior, given your genetics and experiences,” she asks. “There is so much to look into to find that out.”

Austin Lai: Researching Fragile X Syndrome 

Lai, a biology and chemistry double major, demonstrated such a strong grasp of science and technical lab skills that Gary Bassell, professor and chair of the Department of Cell Biology at the School of Medicine, recruited him to work in his lab as a first-year student.

By then, Lai had already done some immunology and genetic engineering work as an intern at the National Taiwan University. Under Bassell’s guidance, Lai quickly learned new skills to examine how FMRP protein is regulated and consequences to its loss that cause Fragile X syndrome, the most common cause of inherited intellectual disability and monogenic cause of autism.

Lai recently presented a poster at the Undergraduate Research Symposium on the identification of proteins that normally degrade FMRP, providing a better understanding of the processes important for learning and memory, with implications for possible new treatments. His work is so promising that the National Fragile X Foundation recently awarded him funding to continue his research as part of Emory’s Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) program this summer.

 “Only rarely have we seen anyone like him in 20 years of research,” says Bassell. “He came with a curious mind, a passion for science and a fire in his belly to make a difference.”

On campus, Lai co-founded a project to generate electricity from compost in the Translational Research and Innovation (TRAIN) Fellowship and helped launch a student chapter of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. He also volunteers with the Global Medical Brigades, spending a week each year helping doctors provide medical care in remote Honduran villages.

“I really like the idea of projects in the lab that take patient samples for a potential cure,” says Lai, who plans to continue translational research in a joint MD/PhD program. “I think a breakthrough will be coming soon, and I want to be a part of that.”

Michael Mu: Investigating immunotherapy 

Mu, who is majoring in biology, has been passionate about biomedical science since childhood. 

On campus, he participated in the Emory Biotech Club, then worked as a biology teaching assistant and represented Emory in the International Genetically Engineered Machine Giant Jamboree.

During his first year, he also joined the all-undergraduate research team in the lab of David Pallas, associate professor of biochemistry in the School of Medicine. The lab studies the role of a protein known as LCMT-1 and the protein phosphatases it regulates, PP2A and PP4, in normal cell function, development and in diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Mu led a group researching the effects of deleting LCMT-1 only from brain tissue. Using a neuron-specific genetic driver, he generated and characterized a new conditional LCMT-1 knockout mouse model lacking the protein specifically in neurons. His research determined that LCMT-1 is necessary for neural development and mouse survival once it is born, the first step in understanding the enzyme’s specific function and potential link to disease, Pallas says. Mu then investigated relevant signaling pathways that might explain his findings, his current focus in the lab.

“Despite the challenges such as negative results that are inherent to scientific research, Michael keeps pressing forward. He is somebody who doesn’t give up and shows an exceptional amount of independence in reading the literature and pursuing his ideas,” Pallas says. “His creativity, drive and interest put him at a graduate-student level living in an undergraduate world.” 

The research, along with recent insights he has gained into the important perspective of clinical medicine, prompted Mu to plan to pursue a joint MD/PhD degree in immunology. Toward that goal, he will conduct immunotherapy research this summer as a National Institutes of Health intern at the National Cancer Institute.

“Evolution has done most of the work,” Mu says. “I want to take it the extra step, and help patients’ own immune systems protect them. Most of all, I think the application to society is one of the most important aspects of science.”

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