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Senior named one of top students in the country

June 09, 2010

At 22, Josh Niska has an eye-popping record of achievement, not the least of which is having been involved in cancer research at the Translational Genomics Research Institute since he was a student at Gilbert High School.

He has trekked through the Amazon region of Ecuador with a surgeon and a shaman, exploring the connections between cultural traditions and modern health care among the indigenous people of the Napo province.

He has published peer-reviewed research papers, presented his findings at national conferences, captained intramural basketball and soccer teams, tutored at the ASU Writing Center, learned Spanish, mentored students at Mesquite High School through Young Life and served as song leader at his church.

Now Niska has been named one of the top 20 college students in the country by USA Today. Having graduated ASU in May in biochemistry with an emphasis in medicinal chemistry, he is featured in the newspaper’s June 9 issue as one of 20 students named to the All-USA College Academic First Team for exceptional intellectual achievement and leadership.

ASU has had more students named to the prestigious award than any other public university in the nation, with 13 students winning First-Team honors in 18 years. Only Harvard and Duke have had more students win the honor.

“Josh is a remarkable young man, a serious and successful student, and also a really great guy,” says Jane Maienschein, Regents’ Professor and director of the Center for Biology and Society who was his honors thesis adviser. “He never took the easy way, but wanted to try on new ideas and approaches. His thesis does a terrific job of exploring the complex issues involved with modern medicine, and especially with its global challenges.

“In addition, he cares about doing good in the world and about his own values and principles. He volunteers not just to get an addition to his resume but to help and learn.”

As a high school senior, Niska’s fascination with science led him to volunteer in the Brain Tumor Unit at TGen, exploring the effects of gene expression levels on invading cells of brain cancer. Once at ASU he won a position in the Breast & Ovarian Cancer Research Unit, spending his summers in the lab, and he was awarded funding during the school year as an ASU School of Life Sciences Undergraduate Research Fellow.

When he won a Goldwater Scholarship last year, Heather Cunliffe, TGen investigator and adjunct faculty at ASU, said Niska is “without question, the most talented student I have ever interacted with. He is a delight to mentor. He truly is the ‘dream student’ that laboratories wish to have.”

Niska was named outstanding graduate from Barrett, the Honors College, and he also graduated from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

In recent weeks Niska has accepted admission to Harvard Medical School. He also has just returned from his honeymoon, having gotten married on May 23 to Emily Cole, who just graduated in English literature and women and gender studies and will pursue a dual master's at Brandeis. It’s an exciting and busy time for an impressive young man.