Senior Biology Major Wins Baylor’s Third Consecutive Churchill Scholarship

Jan. 10, 2023
Arvind MurugananthamBaylor University cell and molecular biology major and Churchill Scholarship recipient Arvind Muruganantham (Matthew Minard/Baylor University)

Arvind Muruganantham is among 16 recipients of the prestigious STEM scholarship from the Winston Churchill Foundation

Media Contact: Lori Fogleman, Baylor University Media and Public Relations, 254-709-5959
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WACO, Texas (Jan. 10, 2023) – Baylor University senior Arvind Muruganantham, a cell and molecular biology major on the pre-med track from Fremont, California, is among 16 recipients of the prestigious and highly selective Churchill Scholarship in science, mathematics and engineering, announced today by the Winston Churchill Foundation of the United States.

The Churchill Scholarship was established at the request of Sir Winston Churchill as part of the founding of Churchill College, Cambridge. It fulfills his vision of deepening the US–UK partnership to advance science and technology on both sides of the Atlantic, ensuring future prosperity and security.

“I applied for the Churchill because of the opportunity to work with world-class scientists in a non-hierarchical scientific environment like is present in the UK,” Muruganantham said. “I knew how competitive the Churchill was, so I definitely was not expecting to win it. Being named as a Churchill Scholar came as a huge surprise, and I am deeply humbled to have been chosen. I’m excited to immerse myself in the culture of a foreign country for a year.”

Muruganantham is an unprecedented third consecutive Churchill Scholar for Baylor in only three years of the University’s participation as nominating institution. Chemistry graduate Kate Rojales, B.S. ’22, was named a Churchill Scholar in 2022, while biology graduate Emily Schultz, B.S. ’21, was Baylor’s inaugural Churchill recipient in 2021.

“It is unusual for a Participating Institution to have immediate success upon joining our network. For an institution to nominate a winner in each of its first three years is unprecedented,” said Michael Morse, John L. Loeb Sr. Executive Director of The Winston Churchill Foundation of the United States.

Muruganantham’s achievement comes on the heels of a record-shattering year for more than 20 Baylor students who, in addition to the Churchill, attained some of the most prominent national and international scholarships, including the Marshall, Fulbright, Truman, Goldwater, Boren and Critical Language awards.

“When we applied three years ago to become a nominating institution for the Churchill Scholarship, we had a high degree of certainty that our students could be competitive,” said Andrew P. Hogue, Ph.D., associate dean for engaged learning at Baylor. “We had no idea, however, that we were in position to do something no other institution had done in the history of the award: to have a student win in each of our first three years of eligibility.”

Physician-scientist aspirations

Through the Churchill Scholarship, Muruganantham will pursue an M.Phil. in developmental biology at Churchill College, Cambridge, working in the labs of Ewa Paluch, Ph.D., and Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, Ph.D. His project will investigate body formation and cell shape dynamics during development using stem cell-derived synthetic embryo models. After the Churchill, he plans to pursue an M.D./Ph.D., then work on longevity biology, reproductive biology or biological simulations.

This is Muruganantham’s second major scholarship, having won Baylor’s fifth straight Goldwater Scholarship in 2022. The Goldwater is the preeminent undergraduate scholarship given in the natural sciences, engineering and mathematics. He is heavily interested in the translational sciences, specifically regarding cancer treatment. Before enrolling at Baylor, Muruganantham had done research at the Stanford University School of Medicine and the University of California at San Francisco. As a senior in high school, he was captivated by the promise of stem cell biology and regenerative medicine.

As a Baylor undergraduate, Muruganantham found a natural research mentor in associate biology professor Joseph Taube, B.S. ’03, Ph.D., whose Taube Lab focuses primarily on molecular pathways and cellular properties that enable primary tumor cells to metastasize. He was drawn particularly to Dr. Taube’s breast cancer metastasis lab because of its impressive research publications.

“I met with Dr. Taube during my freshman year and expressed my interest in working with him,” Muruganantham said. “That meeting really solidified my interest in cancer research as I came to appreciate the various approaches researchers and clinicians utilize to try and solve cancer. The idea that a skin cell can be reprogrammed into essentially any other cell in the body blows my mind. This interest is what eventually led me to breast cancer metastasis research. Although cancer metastasis research isn’t quite the same as stem cell research, there are a lot of parallels between the mechanisms that a primary tumor cell uses to become a metastatic cancer cell and a stem cell uses to become a mature cell type.”

Witnessing Muruganantham in his lab as an undergraduate, Taube is “beyond impressed, but not all that surprised” by his Churchill achievement.

“I have been continually impressed with Arvind’s accomplishments since he joined my lab in January 2020,” Taube said. “Despite the difficult circumstances of a pandemic shutdown, online lab meetings and limited lab access, Arvind sought out opportunities to contribute to our research. He had already developed significant bioinformatics skills before coming to Baylor, and I consider myself fortunate he joined my research group.

“Arvind shows not just the passion, but also the maturity of a promising scientist. He engages positively with all the members of my lab group. His critiques and insights are valuable contributions to our lab meetings. While I am dreading the day when he will graduate and leave my lab, I am nevertheless excited to see his future accomplishments,” Taube added.

Research contributions

Taube points to Muruganantham’s major research contributions, including his analysis of some existing chromatin accessibility data – essentially a pattern within the DNA associated with highly metastatic cells – which revealed the importance of new protein regulators. With this analysis, he was a co-author of “CTCF Expression and Dynamic Motif Accessibility Modulates Epithelial-Mesenchymal Gene Expression,” published in 2022 in the oncology journal Cancers. In addition, Muruganantham is creating a CRISPR knockout cell line to test the importance of this pattern funded by the Undergraduate Research and Scholarly Achievement (URSA) initiative at Baylor.

Along with his work at Baylor, Muruganantham has worked with the Stoyanova Lab at the Stanford Canary Center for Early Cancer Detection since June 2020 on using high-throughput approaches to discover biomarkers and therapeutic targets for highly aggressive prostate cancer. His work with the Stoyanova Lab has resulted in first authorship on several manuscripts currently under preparation and co-authorship on “SU086, an inhibitor of HSP90, impairs glycolysis and represents a treatment strategy for advanced prostate cancer,” published in 2022 in Cell Reports Medicine.

The summer following his sophomore year, he was a research intern in the Bonventre Lab at Harvard Medical School, using stem cell-derived, lab-grown ‘mini-kidneys’ to study the pathogenesis of various congenital kidney diseases. It was this experience that confirmed his interest in stem cell biology and inspired his future study in the field.

“Arvind is simply brilliant, steadfast in his pursuit of breakthrough discoveries in cancer research that will matter for patients long into the future,” Hogue said. “He also found that at Baylor, the sky is the limit, that we have faculty doing world-class R1-level research who also care deeply about mentoring students and illuminating for them the pathways toward work that really matters in this world. Arvind found a mentor like that in Dr. Taube, and he is now prepared to thrive at Cambridge.”

The Office of Engaged Learning, led by Hogue, partners with students like Muruganantham in collaboration with faculty and staff throughout the University, to help maximize their scholarship beyond the classroom, including applying and competing for top scholarships, fellowships, internships and research experiences. Robust opportunities to conduct undergraduate research alongside faculty mentors and fellow students is what attracted Muruganantham to Baylor.

“I was drawn to Baylor because of its commitment to undergraduate research and supportive environment,” he said. “It’s common to see a competitive and cutthroat environment at schools with large pre-med programs, but Baylor isn’t like that. Everyone here, from the faculty to your peers, genuinely wants you to succeed. Baylor’s medium size also equips students with the resources of a larger institution but ensures that you’re not falling through the cracks.”

ABOUT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY

Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked Research 1 institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 20,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 90 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.

ABOUT THE COLLEGE OF ARTS & SCIENCES AT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY

The College of Arts & Sciences is Baylor University’s largest academic division, consisting of 25 academic departments in the sciences, humanities, fine arts and social sciences, as well as 10 academic centers and institutes. The more than 5,000 courses taught in the College span topics from art and theatre to religion, philosophy, sociology and the natural sciences. Faculty conduct research around the world, and research on the undergraduate and graduate level is prevalent throughout all disciplines. Visit baylor.edu/artsandsciences.

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