Janet Wu ’21 Earns Oberlin’s Nexial Prize for 2021

Double-degree pianist to pursue medicine at Stanford University.

May 25, 2021

Erich Burnett

Janet Wu.
Photo credit: courtesy Janet Wu

Janet Wu credits a piano mentor in high school for opening her eyes to Oberlin. Five years later, Oberlin has had its eyes opened to Janet Wu.

In May, Wu was named the winner of Oberlin’s 2021 Nexial Prize, a $50,000 award made annually to a member of the graduating class whose science studies are complemented by a profound interest in the study of culture. Wu, with majors in neuroscience, biology, and piano performance, is the first double-degree student to be honored in the prize’s five-year history, and also the first student of color and the first Asian American student.

She is also one of two winners of the Pi Kappa Lambda Prize for Musicianship, one of the conservatory’s highest honors.

During her time at Oberlin, Wu has shown a profound interest in just about every corner of campus. A pianist since age 3, with a fascination for science that dates back almost as far, she was perhaps an ideal candidate to pursue a double degree, even if her ultimate goal involves oncologic surgery rather than performance.

“I hadn’t planned on going into piano after high school because my focus was on science,” says Wu, who grew up in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. “But I had an unease in not continuing music in college in a more formal way. I knew that if I didn’t even try it, I would regret it.” In her time at Oberlin, she has found the practice rooms of Robertson Hall to be the perfect antidote to the occasional stress of her science studies—and at other times, science is her calming escape from the keyboard. To her, the twin passions are not so unalike.

“In music and in science, we’re trying to understand things by breaking them down into very small blocks and building them back up to either create a performance or create an understanding of how things are all interrelated,” she says. “That sort of big-picture mentality has informed my learning here at Oberlin, and I think that comes from music and how we learn music.”

She considers her conservatory education crucial to developing a necessary sense of vulnerability—the kind that comes from sharing music with others in a classroom or on a stage, as she did as a piano accompanist with the Oberlin College Choir for its 2019 performance at Carnegie Hall. Experiencing vulnerability, she believes, is essential to developing meaningful relationships, especially among people with significantly different life experiences. It’s a notion she also developed as a student leader of Barefoot Dialogues, a program of the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, through which students engage in extended conversations on any and all topics, including sharing deeply personal life experiences, to fully connect with each other.

Wu was one of three students appointed to Oberlin’s Academic and Administrative Program Review steering committee, the 31-member body charged with examining the institution’s programs and practices, with an eye toward developing recommendations for a sustainable path forward. She was also active as treasurer of the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association, which operates Oberlin’s popular food and housing co-ops.

In the margins between her majors, Wu relished her liberal arts courses—from Asian American Literature, to Ethics in Early China, to Global Indigenous Health, and more. Over time, she became attuned to a cultural history that her pre-college education had overlooked, and she was increasingly aware of the ways in which ethnic factors can influence health and healthcare.

“I would describe Janet as fearless, highly motivated, and dependable,” says Professor of Piano Angela Cheng, her musical mentor at Oberlin. “She is fearless in that she is never afraid to study and perform some of the most demanding pieces in our repertoire. She is highly motivated in that she is not going to shy away from something difficult and choose something less challenging, just to make her life easier. And she is dependable: No matter how hard a situation is, she always comes through.”

In August, Wu will begin the Physician-Scientist Training Program at Stanford Medicine. It’s a next step facilitated by five years of Oberlin rigor, not to mention numerous undergraduate fellowships and shadowing experiences, through which she has experienced countless hours of surgeries and conducted research on the resistance of brain tumor cells to chemotherapy. (Her work, conducted as a summer fellow at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, was published in the February 26, 2020, edition of Science Translational Medicine.) At Stanford, she will continue her cancer research, seeking new biomarkers for early detection and approaches to treatment.

“The bulk of my experience so far has been in brain cancer research, and specifically why and how glioblastoma is so resistant to chemotherapies,” she says. “But I’m sort of at a crossroads because I love that research and I love that topic, but more recently I’ve developed another interest—in liver cancer, and especially those types that are derived from hepatitis B infections and that health disparity for Asian Americans, in particular.

“I actually learned about it through my liberal arts classes at Oberlin, which inspired further self-directed research,” she adds. “They made me curious about health disparities. We’ll see if these interests deepen, or if they evolve into something else. There are so many fields I have not explored yet.”

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