Three Duke alumnae named 2023 Knight-Hennessy Scholars to pursue graduate study at Stanford

<p>Left: Anjali Gupta. Top right: Sydney Hunt. Bottom right: Maya Sheth. Photos courtesy of the Office of University Scholars and Fellows.</p>

Left: Anjali Gupta. Top right: Sydney Hunt. Bottom right: Maya Sheth. Photos courtesy of the Office of University Scholars and Fellows.

Three Duke alumnae, Maya Sheth, Sydney Hunt and Anjali Gupta, have been selected to join the 2023 cohort of Knight-Hennessy scholars at Stanford University.

The Knight-Hennessy Scholarship was created in 2018 by Nike co-founder Phil Knight and former Stanford President John Hennessy with the mission of helping to develop the next generation of global leaders. Each year, a cohort of incoming graduate students from across Stanford’s seven schools is chosen to receive up to three years of funding towards their studies.

Since the program’s inaugural year in 2018, 10 Duke graduates have received the prestigious award. Sheth, Pratt ‘20, Hunt, Pratt ‘23, and Gupta, Trinity ‘22, will join the program’s sixth cohort in the fall.

This year’s cohort received 7,119 total applications and 3,733 eligible applications for an effective acceptance rate of 2.3%. Selection for Knight-Hennessy Scholars is a multi-stage process that includes a written application, recommendations from faculty and other mentors, a video statement and an in-person “Immersion Weekend” round.

The Knight-Hennessy Scholarship is one of the most unique graduate scholarships because it has nearly no restrictions on the type of graduate degrees students can pursue. Gupta, for example, is pursuing a medical degree. Sheth and Hunt are using the Scholarship to pursue doctoral studies. 

Maya Sheth

Sheth, a Cincinnati native who graduated from Duke in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering, is pursuing a doctoral degree in bioengineering at Stanford. In her research, she hopes to model mechanisms of enhancer-gene regulation and to impact the fields of healthcare and sustainability by developing tools to study cellular-level biological mechanisms.

“I’m really focusing on the functions of our non-coding genome. How do our genes get regulated, and turned on and off? How does that go wrong when we get diseases?” Sheth said of her current research interests.

Sheth graduated summa cum laude from Duke and with distinction. She also received the Howard G. Clark Award for excellence in undergraduate research from the biomedical engineering department. 

During her undergraduate career, she was president of Duke Conservation Tech, a student organization that allows students to apply their technical classroom skills to real-world efforts towards environmental and ecological protection, and was involved in its Conference Blueprint, a sustainable tech ideation conference.

She also performed research with the Comparative Oncology Group while at Duke, where she studied the biology of marine animals and strove to apply those findings to the treatment of cancer in humans.

Sheth initially started her Duke career on the pre-medical track, but eventually switched paths.

“When I first started at Duke I was thinking about doing pre-med, but then, really just [in] my senior year, I decided I wanted to go to grad school for my Ph.D. instead,” she said. “My research overlapped that area, so it was still a good fit.”

After graduating from Duke, Sheth took a gap year and started doing research at Stanford. Starting off as a volunteer part-time researcher, she became a full-time researcher and transitioned into a doctoral student.

Sheth’s main piece of advice for Duke undergraduates is to follow one’s own timeline and not worry about switching paths or pursuing other goals, even if it might mean taking some extra time to reach them.

“If you want to take time to explore other interests, or regroup after a difficult undergrad, [it is] completely valid as [it is] one of the only times you’re going to have that chance,” Sheth said of taking gap years. “Get experience, reach out to professors. Most professors love to have undergrads working with them. Don’t be scared to try something you’ve never done before.”

Sydney Hunt

A Reginaldo Howard Memorial Scholarship winner, Hunt was recently named Duke’s 2023 undergraduate Young Trustee. She is pursuing her doctorate in electrical engineering at Stanford in the fall.

Hailing from Cornwall, N.Y., Hunt graduated in 2023 with a double major in electrical and computer engineering and computer science, as well as a minor in gender, sexuality and feminist studies. 

Hunt credits her Engineering 101 instructor Rebecca Simmons, associate professor of the practice in the mechanical engineering and materials science department, as having sparked her interest in academia. It was when Hunt told Simmons that her interests lay in teaching and mentoring, rather than traditional career paths, that set her on that journey.

After speaking with Simmons, Hunt joined a Bass Connections project on improving girls’ identity in mathematics, led by her other EGR 101 professor. Her senior thesis under Shaundra Daly, professor of the practice in the electrical and computer engineering department, was an expansion of this research. 

That Bass Connections project also sparked an interest in “understanding the patriarchy, colonialism, the development of the world [and] how that has influenced the lack of diversity in STEM.” Hunt herself identifies as Hispanic and Black. 

It was when she went to Copenhagen, Denmark, to study abroad, that she was able to explore these ideas in greater detail through two GSF courses, Hunt said.

“It was super interesting to me to hear [students’] perspectives and even tie that to engineering,” Hunt said. “As engineers, it is important for us to understand how people work because we are making devices for people, so I think it’s really important that we tie into each other.”

Hunt conducted research in brain-computer interfaces the summers after her sophomore and junior year — the former at Caltech and the latter at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her project at Caltech was her first foray into BCI, the area in which she will also conduct her doctoral research.

“It almost sounded fake that someone could control a robotic arm with their thoughts… [it] just felt super sci-fi futuristic, and I was just really curious on how that actually worked,” she said of her research at Caltech.

The next summer, her research was more focused on the hardware side of BCI, where she built multifunctional neural probes for the brain, after a summer of neural decoding and signal processing.

At Duke, Hunt was a founding member of the SPIRE Fellows’ Living Learning Community and co-established the CS Sidekicks nonprofit, which seeks to instill an interest for computer science in Durham Public Schools students. Hunt also established the annual “Don’t Waste Food Points” food drive. 

Hunt says that in her career, she “would love to give back to students.”

“I find it really, really fulfilling and gratifying. And I think it would give me a happy life,” she said.

Anjali Gupta

Gupta, a Cary native and Robertson Scholar, will be starting medical school at Stanford in the fall after graduating summa cum laude with highest distinction from Duke in 2022. She completed a self-designed Program II major titled “Interplay Between Health and Educational Outcomes.” 

She is currently finishing a gap year, which she spent conducting research in Gambia as a Hart Fellow at the Sanford School of Public Policy.

Through her gap year program, she has been working at the University of the Gambia to develop research infrastructure and perform “a qualitative analysis of health care access among breast cancer patients” in the area.

“If you look at breast cancer in West Africa, it's very different than what you see among white populations in the US or in Europe,” she said. “People are being diagnosed at much younger ages, with much more aggressive disease. And so that's like a really interesting question, trying to understand what's going on.”

Through the Robertson Scholars Program, Gupta led a summer literacy and cultural enrichment program in Tarboro, N.C., for low-income students during the summer after her first year.

“I found myself grappling with … how stressors, things like childhood trauma, and unsafe housing, food insecurity, were really producing this burden for mental and physical health in the community, and then also showing up as behavioral challenges and academic challenges in my classroom,” she said. 

This “on the ground” experience, combined with some of her ongoing research experiences studying health disparities helped her decide to design her own major.

For her Program II major, Gupta took classes from the Center for Child & Family Policy, and in psychology, global health and education. Several of her classes had service learning components within the Durham community, which were a key experience for her. 

Along with researching lifestyle interventions at the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Gupta has also conducted research in the Medical School on cancer disparities and metabolic enzyme kinetics and credits her mentors for diverse perspectives into research. 

While at Duke, Gupta served as president of Duke Partnership for Service, an umbrella organization for student service work at Duke. She was also involved in service work at Adopt-A-Grandparent and a crisis line advocate with the Durham Crisis Response Center. During her senior year, she worked for the Brookings Center for Universal Education, studying how family school engagement can improve outcomes for children and their communities. 

Gupta’s advice to undergraduate students is that they should make sure they are doing things that matter to them and to remain open to possibilities “off the beaten path.” 

“Don’t be afraid to carve out your own path,” Gupta said. “Allow those interests to develop, and maybe go off the beaten path to do something different, if that's what's interesting to you.” 

“I think it's really about making sure you're doing things that matter to you, because you will naturally do well if you're doing what you care about,” she added. 


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