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'I mostly just felt shock': Four juniors win Goldwater Scholarship for math and science research

<p>The 2019 four Goldwater Scholars, from left to right: Kunal Shroff, Jill Jones, Azim Dharani, and Caroline Wang.</p>

The 2019 four Goldwater Scholars, from left to right: Kunal Shroff, Jill Jones, Azim Dharani, and Caroline Wang.

Four Duke juniors were recently selected for this year's 2019 Barry Goldwater Scholarship.

Azim Dharani, Jill Jones, Kunal Shroff and Caroline Wang were among the 496 students chosen from a pool of over 1,200 nominees. The scholarship–worth up to $7,500 per year for two years–is based on academic merit and is awarded to sophomores and juniors studying mathematics, natural sciences and engineering.

Last year, three students–two juniors and a sophomore–were chosen for the scholarship. 

Azim Dharani

An Angier B. Duke Scholar, Dharani studies chemistry with minors in computer science and classical archaeology. 

An hour before officially finding out the news, Dharani wrote in an email that Duke's Office of Undergraduate Scholars and Fellows invited all four scholars to go to Smith Warehouse. He added that hearing the news was not only exciting, but it also validated their hard work from the past few years.

"I really appreciated that the scholarship team invited us to celebrate, and it was great to share this experience with the other students!" Dharani wrote. “Before learning about the scholarship decision, I actually had planned out two very different lunch plans: a sad one for if I did not receive the scholarship and one off-campus for if I won. I was very excited to go off-campus to celebrate and continue to procrastinate studying for my finals.”

Dharani began his research journey in high school, where he worked at a biophysics lab at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and studied protein crystallization from the bacteria that caused syphilis. 

"[I] pretty much failed every experiment that summer," he wrote. "However, [the] experience helped me realize that I enjoyed research, despite these failures, because I liked troubleshooting experiments and trying to answer difficult problems that no one else was working on."

Since coming to Duke, Dharani has worked in the lab of Katherine J. Franz, Alexander F. Hehmeyer professor of chemistry, studying bioinorganic chemistry at Duke. He has also worked in labs at MD Anderson Cancer Center and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. 

His current research involves using computational techniques to design drugs that target and inhibit the growth of aggressive prostate cancer cells after binding to metals. Fascinated by the intersection between computer science and drug discovery, Dharani wrote that he looks forward to working on more projects that integrate these interests in the future. 

His biggest mentors at Duke have been Franz and Subha Bakthavatsalam, a postdoctoral fellow in the Franz Lab. Additionally, he credited Matias Horst and John Lu, both Trinity '18, for supporting him through the scholarship process.

At Duke, Dharani is the co-president of the Undergraduate Research Society and a tutor for organic chemistry. He also runs an undergraduate journal club.

In the future, Dharani hopes to get a Ph.D. in chemistry and become a professor. 

"I would like to be a university professor, teaching students and working on a research project that advances the field of computational drug design," he wrote. 

Jill Jones

Jones is pursuing a double major in neuroscience and linguistics. She wrote in an email that receiving the Goldwater Scholarship was a huge honor, expressing gratitude and appreciation for her mentors who have helped her along the way.

"It was really surreal but a fantastic way to start my Friday last week. We were actually supposed to find out if we were scholars at the end of March, but decisions were delayed until last Friday," Jones wrote. "But it was totally, totally worth the wait." 

She expressed that the other Goldwater Scholars at Duke are some of the best undergraduate researchers on campus, and she feels incredibly lucky to have gotten to know them through the application process.

Jones wrote that her experience as a science camp counselor in high school was what convinced her to study science in college. Personal loss in her life further inspired her passion for researching pediatric brain tumors.

"In 2017, I lost someone close to me to pediatric cancer and found that the only way I could cope with his death was by immersing myself in research on his disease," she recalled. "I eventually worked my way up through the nervous system and into the brain and began looking for summer internships that would allow me to explore my newfound interest in pediatric brain tumors. This led me to the Rubin Lab at [Washington University in St. Louis] in 2018 and most recently to the Pediatric Brain Tumor Lab at Duke."

Her current project with the Pediatric Brain Tumor Lab focuses on how the inhibition of a particular protein family might prevent the metastasis of medulloblastoma, the most common brain tumor in kids. 

"Brain tumors are 1.6 times more common in males than in females across the lifespan, and my colleagues and I are trying to figure out why," Jones wrote. "Ultimately, I hope to combine these two projects in my future research to develop sex-specific targeted therapies for pediatric brain tumor patients."

Outside of research, Jones plays the trumpet in wind symphony, and next year she will serve as the president of Duke's Coalition for Preserving Memory, which aims to memorialize victims of genocide. She is also a child and adolescent life volunteer at the Duke Children's Hospital.

She credited Leonard White, associate professor in neurology, Eric Thompson, associate professor of neurosurgery, Wafa Hassen, cancer researcher at the Duke Medical Center and numerous others for augmenting her "love of Duke and academia" and for helping her "grow as a scientist, learner and human being over the past three years."

After Duke, Jones hopes to take one or two gap years to conduct research or pursue a master's degree, or possibly both. She then aims to matriculate into a medical scientist training program to complete a postdoctoral and clinical fellowship in pediatric neuro-oncology and eventually work full-time as a principal investigator and pediatric neuro-oncologist.

Kunal Shroff

Shroff, a chemistry and neuroscience major, wrote in an email that he was initially quite nervous when all the nominees were gathered together. A breath of relief came only when they were officially named scholars.

"Initially, I mostly just felt shock," he wrote.

Shroff wrote that he has always been fascinated by science and how it allows people to understand the complexity of the world through simply understanding and applying scientific principles. His research experience began in high school, when he worked in a lab at the Catholic University of America with John Choy, assistant professor of biology. 

"I absolutely loved my experience in the Choy Lab, and I credit that initial positive experience as being the catalyst that set me down the path towards a career in research," he recalled.

At Duke, he is currently working in a lab with Nicole Calakos, professor in neurology, neurobiology and cell biology. There, he studies the molecular mechanism behind dystonia, a neurological movement disorder. 

Shroff has also been heavily influenced by his research mentor Zachary Caffall, research analyst in the Calakos Lab. 

"Those two have helped me develop my research acumen and have provided me with an enormous amount of direction regarding how I want to develop my own career going forward," Shroff wrote. 

In addition to research, Shroff is a 2017 Huang Fellow and involved with ScienceDays—a club that puts on science demonstrations for students at local elementary schools—and Synapse, an organization that helps build connections between the Duke neuroscience community and the Durham community. 

In the long-term, he hopes to matriculate into an M.D./Ph.D. program and one day run his own lab focused on studying the pathogenesis of neurological disorders.

Caroline Wang

Wang is pursuing a computer science and mathematics double major. Initially believing that the nominees would be notified by email, she wrote in an email that she felt nervous and confused when they were summoned by the Office of Undergraduate Scholars and Fellows.

"When the [OUSF] told us all four of us had won, I was thrilled," Wang wrote. "I'm so glad everybody won."

Wang's involvement in research began during her sophomore year at Duke. Her fascination with machine learning inspired her to work in the lab of Cynthia Rudin, associate professor of computer science and electrical and computer engineering. She wrote that she is extremely grateful to Rudin for working with her as somebody completely new to the field of computer science. 

Wang is specifically interested in the design of interpretable algorithms, algorithmic fairness and neural networks. Her current research involves investigating the use of interpretable machine learning to predict criminal recidivism. 

"We hope to create a simple and interpretable machine learning model, which can replace the black-box, for-profit models currently used in the justice system for predicting criminal recidivism," Wang wrote.

In addition to Rudin, Wang has found several other incredible mentors in her Data+ team, including advisor Jun Yang, professor of computer science. Her DukeEngage Zhuhai adviser Hsiao-Mei Ku, professor of the practice of music, was also an important mentor to her.

On campus, Wang also plays the cello, where she has been involved with chamber music for the past three years. 

In the future, Wang plans to attend graduate school and obtain her Ph.D. in theoretical machine learning.

"Beyond that, I would like to work in an industry or academic research lab," she wrote.

Mona Tong profile
Mona Tong

Mona Tong is a Trinity senior and director of diversity, equity and inclusion analytics for The Chronicle's 117th volume. She was previously news editor for Volume 116.


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