Emily Nieves arrived at the University of Georgia unsure of what she wanted to study but confident she could find her passion among UGA’s array of highly-ranked academic programs. Once on campus, she quickly discovered a passion for biological engineering and its promise of improving human health. A commitment to research during her undergraduate studies led to significant work in the field of drug discovery and a post-graduate position with leading biopharmaceutical company AstraZeneca. Now, Nieves is beginning a new chapter in her career – starting her Ph.D. work this fall at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Why did you choose to attend UGA?
I chose to attend UGA because at the time I had no idea what I wanted to do and UGA offered so many different, highly-ranked programs so I knew I would be able to find what I was passionate about. Also, the culture on campus was a very welcoming one.
Why were you drawn to study engineering and biological engineering in particular?
I took an amazing AP Biology class in high school that helped me realize that I wanted to use biology to help improve the health of others. Biological engineering allowed me to do that while also combining cutting edge technology, which I also loved. It’s the perfect combination for me.
Did you consider any other area of study or any other potential career?
I was pre-pharmacy my first year, but I fell in love with my math and engineering classes.
You were heavily involved in research as an undergraduate at UGA. Tell us about those experiences and the type of research you conducted.
I was fortunate enough to earn a spot for UGA’s Nanotechnology and Biomedicine summer REU where I worked in Dr. Melissa Hallow’s lab building a mathematical model of the kidney’s reabsorption of oxalate to investigate hyperoxaluria. I absolutely loved combining math, computer science, and human health so I asked to join her lab after the summer. Almost four years later, I’m still working in her lab. I’ve gotten to work on various systems pharmacology models of the kidney mainly to investigate therapies for diabetes and chronic kidney disease and have also gotten to do a bit of machine learning.
Why were you so interested in doing research as an undergraduate?
I loved my science and engineering classes, but I wanted to be able to apply the knowledge I was gaining to answer questions, especially questions related to human health. I didn’t want to wait for an internship, so I tried to get involved in research with faculty as soon as I could.
Was it difficult to juggle your research responsibilities with the demands of your classwork? How did you manage your time and energy?
I was basically always thinking about research, even in class, so it really came down to setting up systems where I could get my classwork done early enough to have the time and focus for research. I’m a big proponent of completing classwork as early as possible. If an assignment comes up, I try to do it as soon as possible. With studying as well, I break it up into small chunks over long periods of time, around 2 weeks.
Did you have an “Aha!” moment in the lab that solidified your decision to focus on research as a potential career?
Very early on, during my first summer, Dr. Hallow taught me how to use PID controllers to mimic how the body maintains homeostasis. Once I finally implemented it in my model, I thought it was just the coolest thing. I told anyone that would listen. I knew after that I wanted to keep doing this.
Who were the professors at UGA that made an impact on you in the classroom and in the lab?
As I’ve already mentioned, Dr. Hallow. She was absolutely the best mentor I could have asked for. She taught me so much about research, academia, and life in general. I wouldn’t have even applied to MIT if it weren’t for her.
A native of Ellijay, Emily Nieves graduated from the University of Georgia in 2020 with a degree in biological engineering. Her undergraduate research in the field of computational medicine, an area of biological engineering where mathematical modeling is used to gain insights into physiology and develop new treatments for disease, led to a post-graduate position with AstraZeneca. She will begin her Ph.D. program this fall at MIT.
How well did your time at UGA prepare you for the next steps in your career?
The different experiences UGA offered me, especially outside of the classroom, like research, CURO symposiums, and senior capstone helped me solidify my career decisions and gave me the technical and soft skills I need for grad school.
What do you think makes UGA Engineering special?
I think it’s the community aspect that makes UGA Engineering special. The students are committed to helping each other and the professors genuinely care about their students.
What have you been doing since your graduation from UGA?
I’ve been working for AstraZeneca in their quantitative clinical pharmacology department, in collaboration with Dr. Hallow. We’ve been working on a model of transport and metabolism in proximal tubule cells to investigate the mechanism of action of a potential drug for diabetic kidney disease.
You are about to start your Ph.D. program and you had offers to attend some extraordinarily prestigious institutions – what was your decision-making process?
My main consideration was mentorship. I got incredibly lucky to have such a great mentor in undergraduate research, so I looked for professors who really believed in being good mentors. I also knew that I wanted to go somewhere that would allow me to pursue projects I was passionate about. MIT had a great combination of both.
What does it mean to you to be able to attend MIT for your doctoral work?
It feels like a dream come true. It means that I will have the opportunity to be involved in some of the best research being conducted and learn from experts in the field so that I can become the best engineer I can and hopefully make a difference in the field and to patients.
If you were to look into the future, what do you hope to accomplish in your field?
I want to create tools and systems to make mathematical modeling for systems pharmacology easier. I strongly believe in the power of these models to answer questions that are difficult to answer with clinical trials or wet lab experiments, but they can be difficult to create. In the future, I hope that I’ve improved the process of building these types of models so they can be more widely applied.
Looking back on your time in Athens, what is one of your favorite memories of your time at UGA?
My favorite memory is meeting my future fiancé in MATLAB class, my very first class at UGA. He asked me for programming help the first day of class and five years later, we’re still helping each other with programming.
You are a former recipient of the Robert H. Brown Scholarship and the Timothy Campbell Family Scholarship. How did receiving these scholarships impact your educational experience?
These scholarships greatly impacted me. They allowed me to focus on my classwork and research without having to worry about how to afford school. They provided such a peace of mind.
How do you think receiving your scholarships impacted your longer term success?
I think that without the various scholarships I’ve received, I would have likely not been able to spend as much time focusing on my grades, which were an important part of getting the graduate school offers that I did.
How did receiving the scholarships impact your view of philanthropy?
They reminded me how very life changing these types of gifts can be, and that you don’t need to give large amounts of money to impact someone. Once I finish school, I’ll definitely be donating to a scholarship fund.
If you could say one thing to College of Engineering donors, or those who are considering giving, what would it be?
I would say thank you so much for the generosity, it can truly be life changing.
What do you miss most about UGA?
I miss nearly everything about UGA, but after a year of working from home what I miss the most is getting to interact with so many people every day, classmates, professors, lab mates, even people on the crowded UGA buses.