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Goldwater Scholar aims to solve global health issues

Meilin Zhu

April 26, 2019

Meilin Zhu, a student at Barrett, The Honors College who will be receiving her bachelor’s degree in biochemistry with a concentration in medicinal chemistry from the School of Molecular Sciences at Arizona State University in May, was inspired by her father’s passion for research and her older sister’s positive experience at ASU and Barrett.

Last spring Zhu was awarded the Goldwater Scholarship, the most prestigious national award for undergraduates in math, science and engineering. Established in 1986 in honor of former Arizona Sen. Barry M. Goldwater, the program seeks to provide a continuing source of highly qualified scientists, mathematicians and engineers by awarding scholarships to the top undergraduate researchers in these fields. 

“I feel honored and excited to win the Goldwater Scholarship. During my freshman year, I discovered a passion for research and I felt that it (the scholarship) would be an important step in pursuing a research career,” she said. “Being interested in this scholarship, I was determined to put my best foot forward. So, actually winning it is quite the dream come true. I believe receiving this scholarship will be instrumental in pushing my research career forward and pursuing a PhD.”

Medical research is something Zhu has always been interested in, but it took her some time to focus on what area she wanted to study and for what purpose. Biochemistry was ultimately a great choice because it is a fundamental science to many fields and applications. Although Zhu will be pursuing bioengineering for her graduate degree, she believes she will be able to better manipulate biological systems by having a strong understanding of their original functions.

Zhu will be heading to MIT this fall to pursue her PhD and her career goals include mentoring and leading a team of researchers in an academic research institution to develop innovative diagnostic tools and technologies to improve health care accessibility in developing nations. Through her experiences traveling abroad and seeing firsthand the lack of affordable health care, Zhu hopes to raise awareness among her peers to take steps to finding solutions to serving those in need.  

Zhu said she is grateful for the assistance of “wonderful mentors I have at ASU. Dr. Karen Anderson in the School of Life Sciences and Dr. Jennifer Blain Christen in the School of Electrical, Computer & Energy Engineering, along with their lab members, have supported me every step of the way, and I am so lucky to have them as advisers.”

Zhu answered some questions about her time here at ASU. 

Question: How did your scholarship impact your education at ASU?

Answer: The National Merit Scholarship and Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship helped support me financially throughout college. By relieving my financial burden, these scholarships allowed me to pursue volunteer-based extracurriculars, such as laboratory research and scientific/medical outreach programs. Applying for and receiving the Goldwater scholarship also helped hone my scientific writing skills and further encouraged my passion for research.

Recently, I was also awarded the NSF GRFP, which will help fund my graduate studies. I will be pursuing a PhD in biological engineering at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. My advisers and ASU ONSA were of great help in preparing and editing my applications for both the Goldwater and NSF GRFP.

Q: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in? 

A: My “aha” moment probably wasn’t until junior year when I took a class in synthetic biology from Dr. Karmella Haynes that showed me how I can put my biochemistry knowledge towards an engineering application.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or that changed your perspective?

A: Sometimes the answer to a problem isn’t the best one but the most practical or implementable one. Working in global health diagnostics, I’ve experienced that firsthand. For example, the most effective screening method for cervical cancer is by far the Pap smear. However, in places like India, where 25% of the world’s cervical cancer cases occur, less than 5% of women receive Pap smears or any form of screening. Thus, with Drs. Karen Anderson and Jennifer Blain Christen and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, we have been working to develop a low-cost, portable blood test to screen for cervical cancer in lower resource settings. We actually just travelled to New Delhi, India, this past March and began pilot testing of the diagnostic device on patient blood samples. By opting for a test that is more affordable, we can better distribute the technology and serve those who have not been able to receive needed medical attention.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: Choosing ASU was largely a financial decision. I definitely do not think it is reasonable to shell out $200,000 or more for an undergraduate degree, especially if you intend to pursue graduate school. Additionally, my older sister, Annie Zhu, graduated from ASU and Barrett several years ago and went on to dental school. Her positive experiences and successful outcome showed me that I could achieve a lot here too.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: I truly cannot narrow it down to one lesson and one professor, but I will mention three of them. Dr. Karen Anderson taught me to marry myself to a biological question and not a technology. As technologies evolve and become obsolete, the answer to a biological question may rapidly change. Dr. Jennifer Blain Christen taught me the value of investing in people. Dr. Timothy Steimle taught me resilience through some of the most difficult college courses I’ve taken at ASU.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Make time to read for fun!!!

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: Third floor of ISTB4 has a fun lounge area with moon crater-printed carpet. I don’t get to come here often, but I definitely wish I could.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would partner with an EdTech company to develop and implement software programs that can improve primary education in lower socioeconomic status neighborhoods.

Jennifer Green contributed to this story

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