Haoyuan Gao Wins Oberlin's 2024 Nexial Prize

$50K award honors a graduating science student with a passion for interdisciplinary research.

June 11, 2024

Communications Staff

a smiling student wearing a suit coat and tie
Haoyuan Gao, Oberlin's 2024 Nexial Prize Winner
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones '97

Haoyuan Gao ’24, a biology and neuroscience double major with minors in book studies, chemistry, and East Asian Studies, has been named the winner of Oberlin’s 2024 Nexial Prize, an honor presented to an outstanding science student with aspirations for interdisciplinary research.

The $50,000 cash award may be used in any way the recipient wishes.

“With my background in biological sciences, book studies, and East Asian studies, I would like to dive into understanding the history of science in East Asia, which has long been overlooked,” says Gao, whose hometown is Beijing, China. “My knowledge of critical thinking, book and religious history, and the Chinese language will enable me to navigate through both primary sources written in classical languages and secondary sources written by contemporary scholars in both the West and the East.”

For the next two years, Gao will be a research associate at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, as part of a team studying natural variations of the human brain. After that, he plans to apply for PhD programs in biology or neuroscience, with the long-term goal of becoming a professor. 

At Oberlin, Gao conducted independent honors research with Associate Professor of Neuroscience Christopher Howard, using fiber photometry to study the interactions between striatal patches and midbrain dopamine neurons and their roles in locomotor function, reward prediction, and action selection. He also studied the polymerization mechanisms of a bacterial tubulin-homologous protein TubZ with Associate Professor of Biology Laura Romberg

Gao’s knowledge of Chinese calligraphy led him to teach a course on calligraphy through Oberlin’s Experimental College, or ExCo, as well as a library-sponsored workshop. He was inspired to minor in East Asian Studies and book studies after taking the course Buddhism in East Asia with Andrew Macomber, assistant professor of East Asian religions.

“As a STEM major student with interest in arts and humanities, I used to think that it was hard to find connections between them, but book studies formed a bridge between these two paths,” Gao says. “More importantly, it forms connections between different cultures and opens new angles to view the world…. Books from ancient times opened a window for me to get to know how our ancestors look at the world.”

His research and studies focused on the East Asian rare book collections in Oberlin’s Terrell Special Collections, encompassing things like cataloging and scanning Chinese rare books and using the Mary A. Ainsworth Collection of Illustrated Japanese Books for a final paper in Macomber’s course Haunted Archipelago.

“In particular, Haoyuan was looking to reveal how aquatic animals native to the archipelago or imported from abroad influenced the historical imagination of supernatural creatures of the rivers, mountains, and seas in Japan,” Macomber says. “This is a highly original topic, one that creatively incorporates Haoyuan’s knowledge in biology, environmental studies, and East Asian religion.

“Haoyuan’s projects are clearly driven by a desire to understand the complex relationships between humans and the natural world, and the ways that humans construct knowledge—whether scientific or religious—to make sense of that world,” Macomber adds. “His highly original and creative investigations into the intersections between nature and culture make him eminently suitable for the Nexial Prize.”

Presented annually, the Nexial Prize honors a member of the graduating class whose science studies are complemented by a profound interest in the study of culture and who demonstrates excellence in the pursuit of interdisciplinary research. The prize was created by an alumnus to recognize the influence of Oberlin’s liberal arts education on his successful career as a scientist and manager and his intellectual and cultural growth. The winner is determined by a faculty panel.

The first Nexial Prize was presented in 2017. Following is a complete list of past winners:

Adam Chazin-Gray ’17 (biology)

Emilie Lozier ’18 (chemistry and French)

Jane Sedlak ’19 (chemistry)

Monica Dix ’20 (geology and politics)

Janet Wu ’21 (neuroscience, biology, and piano performance)

Marwan Ghanem ’22 (biology and neuroscience)

Alli Roshni ’23 (biology and economics)

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