Winston Churchill Foundation Scholarship: Early Bloomer Leslie Rice ----------------------------------- Homewood News and Information Some people can just go on a spring break and lie languidly on a sun-drenched beach for hours and hours. Yonatan Grad, who graduated from Hopkins in December, is not one of those people. Two days back from Cancun with a group of friends, Grad apologized for his lack of tan, but he couldn't help it, he insisted. There was simply too much to do there. While most of his friends hung out on the beach, Grad would take off by himself and wander around Mayan ruins, learning about the ancient culture and its sophisticated measuring and calender-making techniques. "This was an incredibly sophisticated culture, especially in math and science," he said. "And yet they never designed a wheel. Of course they never had an animal bigger than a dog, really, with which to lead a cart. But they did develop an incredible system using friction to drag heavy objects. They would scatter thousands of pebbles on the road, which would make heavy objects roll more easily. Isn't that interesting?" As he rattled off other singular aspects of Mayan culture, it was impossible not to agree. Grad's charming enthusiasm has a tendency to be catching. Yonatan Grad is one of those people who is endlessly curious about nature. Without pretension, he drinks in knowledge with a desert thirst and as one watches him perpetually asking why? why? why? about everything around him, one realizes what a gifted scientist this young man will one day be. Some think the 20-year-old Grad is already well on his way to becoming that scientist. Last week, he was one of 10 graduating college seniors in the country to be awarded the Winston Churchill Foundation Scholarship, a coveted yearlong scholarship at Cambridge University in England, where he'll pursue a master's degree in genetics. For the past two years, Grad has worked part-time in the East Baltimore laboratory of Solomon Snyder, one of the world's leading neuroscientists, who has pegged Grad as a star on the rise. "Yonatan is an extraordinary student," Snyder said. "He is an undergraduate working part-time who has already come up with more original ideas and projects than most Ph.D. students come up with in their entire thesis. His ideas have turned into projects that will culminate in major papers in prominent journals." Since he finished Hopkins in December, Grad has worked full-time in Snyder's lab, concentrating on three different research projects that he designed to examine the roles of the olfactory system on human behavior. Grad entered Hopkins when he was 16. Aside from the fact that his resident assistant, and everyone on his floor, called him "Doogie" throughout his first year, he said, he adjusted to college just fine, despite his relative youth. During his first two years, Grad crammed in a lot of courses--he took seven courses each semester his sophomore year-- which left him with time during his junior and senior years to do research. Knowing that world breakthroughs in brain research were happening fast and furious in Snyder's neuroscience lab, Grad applied for a summer job there after his sophomore year. With the help of Seth Blackwell, a 26-year-old graduate student in Snyder's lab who took Grad under his wing, Grad learned to follow his interests, pursue his ideas and think like a scientist. "It is such an exciting place to be," he said. "It's a very intellectual atmosphere, the lab is filled with some of the brightest graduate and postdoctoral students in the field. It was the first time I was exposed to real science, everything before was just theory. There is so much creativity and freedom in the lab, people are always throwing around questions at each other like 'why is this affecting this kind of behavior' and thinking in terms of differences and analogies. It's an amazing place." For Grad, it was a perfect fit. "Yonatan is a pleasure to talk with because he always has so many ideas bubbling forth," Snyder said. "He reads voraciously and assimilates information about so many different aspects of science." While interviewing for MD/PhD programs, which he will pursue when he returns from England, Grad often found himself telling the story of when he first started to become interested in human behavior. "I was in elementary school and there was this one kid who was really aggressive," he recalled. "He was always the antagonist and didn't get on with the other kids at all." One day he saw the bully's mother talking to his mom on the edge of the children's playground. Soon he noticed his mother beckoning him. She told Grad to go over to the boy and ask him to play. "So I shuffled over there and asked the boy to play," Grad said. "And he was really nice. He seemed almost overjoyed to have someone to talk to and play with. The whole incident floored me. I couldn't understand it all. So I asked my mom why this kid was usually always so mean. She told me that something had happened to him to make him act that way. "That was such an interesting concept for me. That people aren't just born their 'selves.' That there are so many variables that can affect the way people are." It's a concept that has intrigued him ever since, even more so when Grad was diagnosed with a hypothyroid when he was 12, a condition easily controlled with medication. "It's no big deal. But without the medicine I would gain weight, need to sleep all the time and have psychological effects like depression," he said. "But if I lived 100 years ago, I would be a cast-off in society, I'd be unable to function. So that made me think that my personality or "self" has as much to do with the molecular makeup of my body as it does, say, with the way I'm brought up." Curiously, Grad said he was a lousy student until about eighth grade. "I don't even remember doing homework until eighth grade," he said. "I wasn't interested in school, and it showed. As a result, I wasn't recommended for the advanced science and math classes. But my parents asked the school to put me in the classes anyway. They said eventually I'd be interested in school. They were right. For some reason around eighth grade I suddenly decided this stuff was cool, and I began to do well. I owe my parents a lot for that. If they hadn't insisted on the advanced classes, I would never have been exposed to the people and ideas that would get me to this place." Before the next chapter begins in England, Grad plans to travel throughout Asia and fulfill a long-held dream of visiting Hong Kong before 1997 when it is taken over by the Chinese. Then he'd like to go to Israel, where he spent the first few months of his life, to visit family. Grad's father and his family had moved to Israel from Romania in 1960, 20 years after applying for exit visas. He married an American living in Israel, and after having a daughter and then Yonatan, the Grad family moved to the United States in 1976. Yonaton hasn't seen his grandparents since he was 13 and has never traveled extensively on his own. "I've been very focused these last few years on science ... now I'm trying to expose myself to other experiences, like traveling and art," Grad said. "I think it opens you up to new ideas and new ways at looking at things. There's a painting by Gauguin that struck me, called Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? Regardless of what field of study we're in, whether it's neuroscience or art, we are all asking the same questions, aren't we?"
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