Johns Hopkins Gazette: April 1, 1996

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

     "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

     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

     "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

     "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

     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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