Noah Okada, a senior at Emory College, is among 100 outstanding scholars selected for the inaugural cohort of Quad Fellows, a global network of thinkers working in science and technology to solve real-world problems.
The first-of-its-kind scholarship, whose winners were announced on Friday, is a joint initiative of the governments of Australia, India, Japan and the United States. The award includes graduate study at leading U.S. universities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), as well as access to funding, cross-cultural exchanges, and workshops on topics such as the intersection of ethics and of innovation.
Okada, a double major in computer science and neuroscience and behavioral biology from Osaka, Japan, will represent his home country in the program.
He plans to pursue a PhD that will allow him to expand his research at the intersection of artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality and neuroscience, which won him a Goldwater Fellowship last year. His PhD will focus on identifying and modeling the neural circuits that power mental and cognitive illnesses.
“Understanding the circuitry that generates emotional, fear and anxiety responses solves a fundamental human problem,” says Okada. “I think the international collaboration component of the Quad Fellowship is the key unique factor that will allow us to translate these discoveries very quickly across the world.”
From brain injury to brain research
A brain injury from a high school wrestling accident caused Okada to understand what was going on in every region of his brain, including and beyond the injury. Once planning to become a software engineer, Okada came to Emory with the intention of applying his knowledge of programming to a deeper understanding of neuroscience.
“Noah Okada’s story is remarkable,” said Emory President Gregory L. Fenves. “He turned the adversity of a frightening injury into inspiration for his fellowship in neuroscience and AI. He is everything we hope for in an Emory student – bright, talented, and determined to use his knowledge to helping others. I can’t wait to see what he will accomplish as a Quad Fellow.
He began his research journey as a freshman, developing virtual reality (VR) landscapes and memory paradigms in the lab of Daniel Drane, professor of neurology at Emory School of Medicine. His work enables researchers to understand the mechanisms by which memories are formed, which has implications for the treatment of neurological disorders such as epilepsy and for the examination of questions of neurophilosophy, such as the experience of deja vu.
“Noah has the ability to be a superstar in the business for years to come,” says Drane.
“He has a unique combination of abilities, not often found in one person. His communication skills, he entered Emory with an advanced knowledge of computer programming, he quickly learns all about neuroscience and he has faith in something more than science, as well as his personal experience of recovering from an injury cerebral,” adds Drane. “It drives Noah to go above and beyond the task at hand with a passion to understand how things work and to truly help others.”
Okada continued his research and co-authored two papers with a third in review, as a researcher for the Emory Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD). On campus, he has also served as a research ambassador, a member of a University Senate committee, and a board member of the undergraduate research journal Gray Matters.
Okada has also conducted cognitive neuroscience research beyond Emory. He interned last summer at neuroscientist Dean Mobb’s lab at the California Institute of Technology and continued remotely thereafter, gamifying his virtual reality paradigms to study fear and anxiety behaviors using fMRI experiment.
He also developed similar VR systems in Josef Parvizi’s lab at Stanford University last summer. There, Okada worked directly with patients who would experience simulations of everyday life in the artificial reality while intracranial electrodes monitored their brain activity.
The technical work also required humane care ensuring patients were comfortable enough for researchers to model their brains for possible surgery.
“Noah’s creativity, self-awareness and research skills allow him to truly embody Emory’s mission to create, preserve, teach and apply knowledge in service of humanity,” said Megan Friddle, Director of the Emory College National Scholarship and Fellowship Program in the Pathways. Center, which supports all students through the major award application process. “We are excited for the opportunity he has to share his research in multiple contexts and cultures as a Quad Fellow.”
Mercedes Balcells, a principal investigator at MIT, recruited Okada into her lab last year to develop a model of the blood-brain barrier to understand how the brain responds to inflammation.
When this internship ended in 2021, Okada and Balcells continued to meet weekly. He then prepared research protocols for a soon-to-be-launched study that examines wearable device data for possible links to anxiety and depression. Okada is co-author of a review article on the data collection effort.
Balcells looks forward to continuing to work with Okada on her graduate studies.
“Noah is so humble that he once apologized to me for his pipetting ability because of the side effects of his brain injury,” Balcells said. “It doesn’t slow him down. He’s everything you want in a Seeker: a sweet personality with the skill and ability to shine while being a team player.
Application of perturbation to discovery
Okada has largely recovered from his injury, although he still suffers from migraines. He views this personal experience as additional knowledge to his research into the systems-level and molecular-level changes behind the complexities of cognitive function.
“I remember trying to share what I was going through, and no tests showed my deficits. Cognitive and emotional tests seemed normal, but I had days when I was not at all,” says Okada.
“My goal is to help show how everything is interconnected in our brain so that we can know how to help patients who are recovering from injury or who need surgical, drug or behavioral treatment,” he adds. -he. “All of these elements need to come together if we are to understand what can happen when there is a disturbance in our brain.”
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