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UPDATED: Princeton seniors Joshua Babu and Wafa Zaka, and alumna Emma O'Donnell, win Rhodes Scholarships

Nov. 21, 2021, 9:59 a.m.

Princeton University seniors Joshua Babu and Wafa Zaka, and 2021 graduate Emma O’Donnell, have been awarded Rhodes Scholarships for graduate study at the University of Oxford.

Babu is among 32 American recipients of the prestigious fellowships, which fund two to three years of graduate study at Oxford. In a statement, Elliot Gerson, American Secretary of the Rhodes Trust, said of this year’s Rhodes Scholars representing the United States: “They are inspiring young leaders already, and we are confident that their contributions to public welfare nationally and globally will expand exponentially over the course of their careers in varied sectors and disciplines.”

O’Donnell and Zaka will join an international group of more than 100 Rhodes Scholars chosen from more than 60 countries, and they are among several winners who have attended American colleges and universities. Individual countries announce their recipients on different schedules; O'Donnell now joins Babu and Zaka, whose Rhodes Scholarships were announced on Nov. 21.

The students will begin their studies at Oxford in October 2022.

Joshua Babu

Joshua Babu

Joshua Babu

Babu, of Scottsdale, Arizona, is concentrating in molecular biology and is also pursuing a certificate in gender and sexuality studies. At Oxford, he will pursue an MSc Comparative Social Policy and MSc Evidence-Based Social Intervention and Policy Evaluation. He is a member of Forbes College, one of Princeton’s six residential colleges.

Babu’s independent research has centered on the transgender experience in healthcare. His senior thesis is titled “Puberty suppression and gender-affirming hormone therapy for transgender youth: Effects on psychological health and telomere homeostasis.”

In his Rhodes application, he wrote, “Research like this was woefully in demand, as legislation was being drafted across the globe banning puberty blockers and hormone therapy for trans minors because they were ‘experimental treatments’ with ‘questionable efficacy.’”

"With the guidance of my adviser, Dan Notterman [professor of the practice in molecular biology and senior adviser to the provost for biomedical affairs], I’ve spent the past two years conducting a clinical study on the psychological wellbeing and biological health of trans youth undergoing gender-affirming care,"  Babu said. "I hope to identify methods for quantifying the benefits of this sort of care on both the molecular and macroscopic levels.”

“Josh believes fiercely that science is best when it serves to inform policy and attenuate inequity in healthcare,” said Notterman. “His dedication to the needs and rights of marginalized people in medicine is really an example of a broader passion for serving those who have been traditionally overlooked. He is one of those rare individuals who combines decency and compassion with unlimited energy and deep brilliance. A wonderful person, Josh is one of Princeton’s very best.”

Babu has developed his passion for LGBTQ+ advocacy in medicine and social policy at Princeton. He received the Shapiro Prize for Academic Excellence for the years 2018-19 and 2019-20 and was elected to Princeton's chapter of Phi Beta Kappa in October 2021.

He conducted bioinformatics research focused on gender-specific markers for lung cancer survival at the Mayo Clinic’s Center for Individualized Medicine during summer 2020 and was awarded the fellowship again for 2021. In summer 2021 he was a research assistant in Princeton’s School for Public and International Affairs on a project focused on comparative right-wing LGBTQ+ policy. In spring semester 2020, he conducted research with a team of two undergraduates examining the effects of drug treatment on ovarian stem cell development. He also serves as an undergraduate teaching assistant for organic chemistry.

Dannelle Gutarra Cordero, lecturer in gender and sexuality studies and African American studies, has mentored Babu since his first semester at Princeton. He has taken three of her courses: “From Latin Lovers to Tiger Mothers: Ideas of Emotions in the History of Racism,” “Scientific Racism Then and Now” and “Institutional Anti-Blackness and the Power of Naming.”

“In his scholarly and extracurricular work, Josh consistently demonstrates his outstanding commitment to scholarship, restorative justice and global health,” Gutarra Cordero said. “I have been lucky to witness his remarkable development as a scholar and his activist work for curricular reform and as a contributor of the Archival Justice for the Enslaved Project, which I direct. I am so happy for Josh and know that he will vastly contribute to the scholarship and advocacy against medical discrimination.”

Babu has developed a deep commitment to service and advocacy during his time at Princeton.

This fall, he became a volunteer at the Cherry Hill Women’s Center, supporting patients and advocating for reproductive justice. Since Feb. 2021, he has been involved in several aspects of LGBTQI advocacy, including drafting proposals on how state representatives can rectify legislation that discriminates against LGBTQ+ people in healthcare. He is a voter-engagement team leader for the Princeton Vote 100 Initiative and an activist for anti-racist initiatives at Princeton, including helping to establish a committee to promote racial literacy in pre-med courses, particularly in genetics and evolutionary biology, and working for more inclusion in the audition process at the Lewis Center for the Arts.

He has also served as a delivery driver for St. Mary’s Food Bank in Phoenix; an emergency room volunteer in Scottsdale, Arizona, and Princeton; an English literacy tutor for elderly refugees in Phoenix, a hospice volunteer in Phoenix; and a migrant outreach volunteer at the US-Mexico border with the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Mexico.

Babu said living and learning in the time of COVID-19 has changed his perspective in many ways.

“For me, the pandemic underscored the importance of having a strong network of loved ones to rely on during times of stress and the immense power of empathy when it comes to public health. These are lessons that I’ll take with me to Oxford and far beyond!”

Outside the classroom, he is the a cappella group president and tenor section leader of the Princeton Footnotes, and represented the Footnotes during its first equity, diversity and inclusion initiative to make the ensemble’s audition process more equitable. He is also an avid screenwriter, where he has “found a passion for writing screenplays that depict the trials and triumphs of my closest queer friends, allowing me to explore themes of queerness, family and loss in a way that highlights the complexity of the gay experience.” He is a multi-instrumentalist who plays alto saxophone, guitar, piano, ukulele, cajon and harmonica.

This is the second year American Rhodes Scholars were elected entirely virtually, with all candidates and selectors participating digitally. They were elected by 16 committees around the country meeting simultaneously.

Babu was in Frist Campus Center when he received the news over Zoom from his district committee: Upon learning he had won the Rhodes Scholarship, he said: “I'm not going to lie — I immediately started sobbing as soon as they read out my name as one of the winners.” He then ran across campus to meet his parents, who were visiting for the weekend. “Easily one of the most emotional moments of my life,” he added.

About going to Oxford, Babu said: “What excites me most is the opportunity to connect with so many astounding people from all corners of the globe and diversify my outlook on the world.”

After the Rhodes Scholarship, he hopes to attend medical school and pursue a career in health policy to advocate for the wellbeing of LGBTQ+ individuals. 

Emma O’Donnell

Emma O'Donnell

Emma O'Donnell

O’Donnell, of Pembroke, Bermuda, was a concentrator in ecology and evolutionary biology. At Oxford, she hopes to pursue her interest in sustainability.

Her academic studies at Princeton focused on marine conservation and ecology. Her passion for Bermuda’s reefs started as a child, when she would spend countless afternoons snorkeling; when she turned 13, she earned her SCUBA license. “I was hooked,” she wrote in her Rhodes application. “I found the beauty of the surrounding corals serene and meditative …. When I learned about the threats the reefs were under, I felt driven to conserve our reef fish biodiversity.”

Stephen Pacala, the Frederick D. Petrie Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and O’Donnell’s senior thesis adviser, said that when he first heard O’Donnell’s thesis proposal — to census coral reef fish species in Bermuda by analyzing DNA from the water they swim in — he was wary. He quickly realized he needn’t have been.

“This sounded crazy to me, given that no one had ever done it before and that the volume of water is so vast and the diversity of the fish so high,” Pacala said. “But Emma succeeded despite COVID-19 restrictions, international red tape and technical challenges. In so doing, she uncovered patterns that will help conserve Bermuda’s reef communities.”

O’Donnell received the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology’s Prize for the Best Thesis in Ecology.

Her international research experience includes serving as an intern from 2016 to 2020 with the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences in St. George’s, Bermuda, which included research for her senior thesis. In summer 2019, she was an intern for the Coral Reef Research Foundation in Palau, a country with one of the most successful marine conservation policies in the world, she said.

Her international experience during her time at Princeton also includes serving as a conservation volunteer for Reef Conservation International in Placencia, Belize, in 2019, in which she participated in an invasive lionfish culling program on Belize’s coral reefs to aid in conservation and eradication efforts. In 2018, she completed an internship with Aquabyte, in Bergen, Norway, where she designed an algorithm to evaluate the accuracy of a machine learning program at detecting salmon biomass to optimize food supply for aquaculture farms.

She said her favorite classes at Princeton were interdisciplinary courses that allowed her to explore the interconnectedness of biodiversity with agriculture, economics and epidemiology.

Outside of her studies, she taught barre classes with Princeton’s Campus Recreation Program, and she was a member of Expressions Dance Company and the Butler College Council.

Since September 2021, she has been working in London as a reinsurance climate change strategy trainee with Aon. Her final Rhodes interview took place virtually. When she received the news that she had been selected during a video call, it was almost midnight in London due to the time difference.

“My sister happened to be visiting me during her college break, and we were headed off to bed when I got the call,” O’Donnell said. “My first reaction was shock and a little confusion — I couldn’t believe it! I was glad my sister was there to share the news in person. I also called my parents to tell them, and they were so excited and proud.”

She said the challenges of pursuing her academic studies and research during the pandemic, both at Princeton and after graduation, have been transformative for her.

“The pandemic has taught me the importance of surrounding yourself with people who support you, as well as offering that support to others, even when struggling yourself,” O’Donnell said. “It has helped me to grow as I learned to face uncertainty and handle the circumstances outside of my control. It has also served as a stark reminder of how lucky I am, which has heightened my resolve to use this opportunity to give back and serve the broader community.”

As a Rhodes Scholar, she is looking forward to expanding her worldview. “I am most excited about the chance to join a community of driven and passionate people with such varied backgrounds and perspectives, to make long-lasting connections, and to learn from each other,” she said.

After Oxford, she hopes to continue her focus on protecting Bermuda’s environment. “I plan to advocate for and to develop solutions for sustainability and climate change mitigation and resilience in the private sector,” she said.

In her Rhodes application, she wrote: “Long-term, I hope to move into the field of corporate sustainability or sustainable investing because I believe there is enormous potential for the private sector to drive important and necessary environmental change.”

Wafa Zaka

Wafa Zaka

Wafa Zaka

Zaka, of Lahore, Pakistan, is concentrating in politics and is also pursuing a certificate in history and practice of diplomacy. At Oxford, Zaka will pursue an MSt in Global and Imperial History and an MSc in Modern South Asian Studies. She is a member of Mathey College.

In her academic work, Zaka has delved deep into world history with a focus on Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Her interest in this area was sparked in one of her courses at Princeton, when a Bangladeshi student presented on the 1971 war and the creation of Bangladesh. In her Rhodes application, she wrote, “My high school textbook [in Pakistan] summarized the entire war into two paragraphs, but I had done independent reading on the topic … Still, as my class fellow spoke about the experiences of Bangladeshis, I felt I had not fully grasped the importance of those events.”

This experience spurred Zaka to embark a research project on the perceptions of the 1971 war among Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and their diasporic communities, conducting dozens of interviews to study the impact of statist narratives on how people look back on the war.

Her senior thesis is about ungoverned spaces in Pakistan, particularly the Federally Administered Tribal Area. “To understand state capacity and nation-building process, I will be analyzing the efforts at integration by the Pakistani state and why these efforts were ineffectual in some of these areas,” she said.

“Wafa is the kind of student we love to teach; smart, curious and thoughtful about the significance of what she is learning,” said Jeremy Adelman, the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History, who established Princeton’s Global History Lab.

Zaka took Adelman’s course “A History of the World,” then joined the Global History Lab’s History Dialogues Project, which builds upon the work of “A History of the World” and provides students with training in additional historical research methods to embark on independent research projects.

“Wafa was an important voice in my ‘History of the World’ course, committed to sharing her knowledge and raising the level of our debates,” Adelman said. “After that, she joined the History Dialogues project in the middle of the pandemic and conducted pioneering oral histories of South Asia’s long history of decolonization. She is going to make remarkable and important contributions to global knowledge.”

Zaka also created the History Dialogues Coronavirus Archive with the Global History Lab. She said the pandemic heightened her awareness of the immense inequalities in society. “I observed the mainstream coverage of the pandemic to see the kind of systems of knowledge we are producing in these historic times. I was thrilled to build this archive to document pandemic experiences that explain the virus's diverse implications and include voices generally excluded and historically marginalized.”

In fall 2020, when she was studying remotely from Pakistan, she took a journalism course on migration with Ferris Professor of Journalism Deborah Amos and found another medium to capture marginalized voices, writing several pieces about Afghan refugees' unique experiences in Pakistan during COVID-19.

Her international experience at Princeton also included a Princeton International Internship (virtually) with the Russian International Affairs Council.

She has served as a researcher for Princeton’s Empirical Studies of Conflict Lab, coding and archiving more than 200 disinformation stories about COVID-19 from various countries, specifically focusing on South Asia. She was also a fellow for the UN/ORL Women Faith and Gender Fellowship, focusing on topics such as multilayered inclusion and intersectionality, intergenerational dialogues and youth activism.

She received the Shapiro Prize for Academic Excellence for the year 2019-20.

As a first-generation, lower-income student, Zaka wrote in her Rhodes statement, “I have experienced some of the struggles that go behind succeeding in an unequal society.”

Outside of her studies, Zaka has served as president of the Princeton University Pakistani Student Association (Pehchaan), interview editor and social media chair for The Nassau Literary Review, and president of the Rotaract Club of Lahore, Pakistan, including working with and leading 20 Rotaract members for Rotary International’s End Polio Campaign in Pakistan.

Zaka’s final Rhodes interview took place in person in Pakistan. Upon learning she had won, she said she was overwhelmed and grateful and called her family, who were waiting in the car outside. “The tears would not stop. After meeting the committee, I ran to meet my family. It was an exceptionally joyous moment. I owe everything to the love and mentorship of my family, friends and professors.”

Zaka said she lost three people close to her during the pandemic: her grandmother; Zoya Shoaib, a member of the Class of 2020; and Imam Sohaib Sultan, Princetonlongtime Muslim chaplain who died in April at the age of 40. “All the social distancing and isolation made grief a lot more challenging. I want to dedicate my success to them — they were some of my biggest supporters, and if they were alive, they would have been thrilled to hear about my selection as a Rhodes Scholar.

She is excited to explore the wide range of archival resources in the UK and deepen her studies of South Asian history. “Oxford has some of the world's foremost historians, and I cannot wait to work with them. I am also looking forward to building new friendships and enjoying the green spaces at Oxford.”

After the Rhodes Scholarship, she hopes to pursue a career in academia as a historian. “As a brown girl from South Asia, I want to contribute to broader social change,” she said. “My presence in the professoriate will make space possible for people like me to initiate other kinds of knowledge and political projects that get snuffed out before they even have the opportunity to start.” She is also interested in working outside academia to make historically marginalized narratives accessible to the wider public in Pakistan by directing documentaries, writing books and organizing workshops.