John Lu and Karen Xu were recently chosen as 2017 Goldwater Scholars from a field of more than 1,200 nominees.

The two Duke juniors are among 240 students who were named as recipients of this year's award, according to a Duke Today release. The scholarship provides up to $7,500 per year in funds and is awarded to students in mathematics, natural sciences and engineering based on academic merit.

A chemistry and mathematics major, Lu said that his primary academic interest lies in researching neglected tropical diseases.

“These [diseases] primarily impact the poor, so they reinforce cycles of poverty because the diseases cause widespread morbidity—so long term, chronic disease instead of acute disease,” he said. “They don't necessarily kill people, but over the long term they kill people’s hopes and dreams."

Lu currently studies the Epstein–Barr virus in the lab of Micah Luftig, deputy director of the Center for Virology and an associate professor of molecular genetics and microbiology. Although Epstein-Barr is not an NTD, Lu said that the experience provided him with a strong framework for the structural biology and biochemical approaches used to study similar infectious agents.

The virus has been implicated in several blood cancers, which is the line of study that Lu has focused on during his time at Duke.

“I study the interactions of a couple of the proteins that are used by this virus to mediate this [cancerous] potential,” he said. “In particular, these proteins are the primary way by which the virus is able to [replicate] and proliferate.”

Lu explained that he included his current work in his research proposal for the Goldwater Scholarship and also wrote a description of how he would use sophisticated imaging techniques to visualize the virus’ deleterious proteins in action.

Looking to the future, Lu said that he hopes to learn more about the dynamic nature of proteins as a physician-scientist.

"At the end of the day, proteins are not going to be like frozen turkeys," he said. "Proteins move, they squish, they wobble. Proteins are inherently flexible, and what I'm interested in is being able to use new techniques to visualize how these proteins are flexible with the ultimate goal of understanding and developing novel therapeutics for a number of these diseases.”

Beyond research, Lu is involved with Project HEAL and GlobeMed at Duke, and was also one of the co-founders of the Duke Global Health Review.

Although Lu is currently conducting research at the University of Oxford, he usually helps lead a house course on NTDs and additionally works as a peer advisor to first-years.

“It’s a great way for myself to pass on some of the experiences I've had to freshmen," Lu said. "I enjoy helping students find their paths and their way on the Duke journey."

Xu—a biomedical engineering major—said she wants to pursue research that directly impacts patient care, focusing on materials science and cell biology.

“I really love doing research, but for me, research is meaningless without having a purpose,” Xu said. “Having the opportunity to complete research in the context of patients is what I want to do.”

This passion began when she interned at the National Institutes of Health, she explained. 

Currently, Xu works with Brenton Hoffman, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering, in his lab at Duke, where she does research on how cells are “influenced by the forces that they feel.” The lab has created a sensor to monitor forces found within cells in order to learn how these forces affect cellular processes.

In addition to her research at Duke, Xu worked in a cardiology lab at Washington University in St. Louis, where she conducted research on heart attacks.

“One of my projects was looking at trying to utilize a goggle-technology in order to visualize a heart’s surface and the blood-flow in that surface during a heart attack,” she said. “If a surgeon were to try to perform surgery, he can tell where the heart is attack is happening while he is doing the surgery.”

Xu explained that music is also a large part of her life—she is the percussion section leader for the wind symphony. In addition, she works as a resident assistant on West Campus.

The Goldwater scholarship will help her achieve her goal of becoming a “full-time principal investigator,” she said, giving her the opportunity to study how cells can interact with bio-materials.

“I want to be a research scientist at a university," Xu said. "Because I’m so focused on patient care, having the additional medical degree will help me to contextualize my research better."

She added that she would not have gotten the scholarship without the help and support she has received at Duke.

Two additional Duke students—Dev Dabke and Reena Debray—were named among the 307 honorable mentions for the award.