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Scientific superstars

by Michelle Salzman Boston
Students recognized as outstanding undergraduates in biological sciences honors core courses display their awards with Professor Albert Herrera of USC Dornsife. (Photo/Erica Christianson)
Photo: Students recognized as outstanding undergraduates in biological sciences honors core courses display their awards with Professor Albert Herrera of USC Dornsife. (Photo/Erica Christianson)

Manan Shah has a passion for understanding how the brain works. Specifically, the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences junior is interested in visual cognition — the complex process that interprets what we see into what we know.

Shah studies how the brain accomplishes the incredible feat of perceiving, recognizing and understanding images of objects and scenes. His research also looks at how the brain organizes the vast array of conceptual dimensions activated by an image or a word.

“For instance, a fraction-of-a-second-glimpse of a picture of a giraffe can activate associations that it is a living thing, 15 feet tall, that can be found in Africa,” explained Shah, a research assistant in the laboratory of Irving Biederman, holder of the Harold Dornsife Chair in Neurosciences and professor of psychology and computer science.

“The neural basis for this extraordinary access to the interpretation of an image has previously defied scientific analysis,” he continued. “My research aims to explore the visual recognition map in the brain, advancing the neural cartography of object recognition.”

For his exceptional work, Shah received the Brian Philip Rakusin Scholarship in Neuroscience, which honors the most outstanding student entering his or her junior or senior year in USC Dornsife’s neuroscience program. The scholarship will provide him with financial support for his senior year.

Shah and other top students were recognized with several awards during a luncheon held at the Davidson Continuing Education Center in April. The event brought together students and faculty to celebrate the accomplishments of stellar undergraduate and graduate students in USC Dornsife’s biological sciences department and neuroscience program.

“The students we’re honoring are fulfilling the promise that they had when they were admitted to USC,” said Albert Herrera, master of ceremonies for the luncheon and professor of biological sciences at USC Dornsife.

Not only are they model students with top grades, but they’re seizing the opportunity to work with faculty in laboratories while engaging with them in their classrooms, Herrera noted.

William McClure, professor of biological sciences, presented Shah with his award, which honors the memory of Brian Rakusin, the first student enrolled in USC Dornsife’s undergraduate neuroscience program.

McClure was a mentor for Rakusin, a neuroscience student who was an undergraduate when he died in 2003.

“Brian’s name was on the rolls before our program was even approved by the curriculum committee,” McClure said.

Ken Rakusin, Brian’s father who attended the event, said that endowing a scholarship in his son’s name will give other students the opportunity to make strides in a field that had meaning for his son.

“The world was deprived of what our son could do in the future, but now we’re helping someone else do things that will help others,” Rakusin said. “It’s a ‘pay it forward’ moment. Hopefully when the students who win this prize are able to get to a point in their lives where they can do something similar, they will help someone else.”

Shah said that receiving the Rakusin Scholarship was a great honor.

“The recognition motivates me to strive for more excellence in my work both in class and in my research,” he said.

Of Ken Rakusin’s recommendation to help others in the future: “I most definitely will,” Shah said.

Other winners recognized at the luncheon were:

Undergraduate Course Honors:

BISC 120Lg: Kaitlin Aquino, Harrison Lee, Hajin Lee
BISC 121Lg: Moriah Mulroe
BISC 220L: Mincheol Park, Miya Okado, Jonathan Bushman
BISC 221L: Christina Yang
BISC 315: Megan Nathan
BISC 320L: Kaitlin Kogachi, Adeel Mohammadi
BISC 325: Brian Lentz
BISC 330L: Thalia Bajakian, Kellie Spector

Outstanding Teaching Assistant Awards:

BISC 104L: Meghen Miles
BISC 120Lg: Sarah Hu, Rebecca Sawyer, Jamie Smith, Megan Hall, Tyler Beebe
BISC 121Lg: Alle Lie
BISC 150L: Jillian Shaw, Stephanie Chan
BISC 220L: Xiao Liu, Patrick Sun
BISC 221L: Megan Hall
BISC 300: Rohan Sachdeva, Johanna Holm
BISC 320L: Hong Seok Shim, Jennifer Cardell
BISC 330L: Carolyn Truong
BISC 403: Jared Peace
BISC 469L: Brian Seegers

Brian Philip Rakusin Scholarship in Neuroscience: Manan Shah

Outstanding Student of the Year Award: Katherine Fu, Russell Stewart

Milton Okin Award: Morgan Cheeks, Sara Meghji, Jeremy Paluch, Benjamin Rostami

Milo Don Appleman Award: Ashley Hu

SCynergy Award: Kacie Amacher

Harrison M. Kurtz Award: Emily Smail

William E. Trusten Award: An Ying Alice Lie

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