Molecular biology concentrator Samvida Sudheesh Venkatesh ’19, known for her relentless and humble approach to her scientific research, was awarded a 2019 Rhodes Scholarship on Oct. 26.
Venkatesh is a senior science writer for The Daily Princetonian.
Venkatesh’s friends, professors, and mentors consistently said that they are not surprised she was honored with such a recognition.
“She has plenty to brag about, but we have to do all the bragging for her!” said Colin Yost ’19, one of Venkatesh’s closest friends on campus.
With a focus on using data, algorithms, and models to understand biological processes — a field known as computational biology — Venkatesh, a Forbes College RCA, is a former participant in the University’s Integrated Science Curriculum program. Her Rhodes Scholarship will enable her to continue her studies as a master’s student at the University of Oxford, in Oxford, England, studying biochemistry. Venkatesh said she will dedicate the coming years to the kinds of interdisciplinary science she pursued at the University, as well as pedagogical studies.
The Rhodes Trust offers around 100 total scholarships to students across the world every year.
According to a press release from the University, Venkatesh is one of five recipients of the prestigious scholarship who hail from India.
Venkatesh was initially inspired to apply for the scholarship after learning more about previous cohorts of Rhodes Scholars.
“They’re a group of intellectually oriented, academically high-achieving people, but they also really want to make a difference in the world,” she said. “It sounds cheesy, but these are people who care, and who want to lead something in some way. I thought, ‘I want to do that!’”
The Rhodes Trust website describes scholars as individuals known “not only for their outstanding scholarly achievements, but for their character, commitment to others and to the common good, and for their potential for leadership.”
For many who know Venkatesh in a personal or academic capacity, learning that she had been named a Rhodes Scholar was welcome news but not a huge shock.
“From the beginning, I kind of felt in my heart that she was going to get [the scholarship],” said Jamie O’Leary ’19, a close friend and former roommate of Venkatesh’s. “I am absolutely thrilled, but not that surprised.”
“The dedication and class with which she handles herself was so abundantly clear during the Rhodes application process,” said Yost. “This is such a well-deserved award for her.”
In the process of obtaining her graduate degree at Oxford, Venkatesh will continue her research in cancer genomics, which she began during the summer of 2017 in the lab of Ahmed Ahmed, professor of gynecological oncology at Oxford University’s Nuffield Department of Women’s and Reproductive Health. Instead of taking classes, she will be conducting this independent research full-time.
“Eventually, since I want to get a Ph.D., it’s important to get hands-on research experience, and I think this is a really good way of doing it,” she said.
Her academic focus lies primarily in the nexus of computation and biology, and she credits the Integrated Science Curriculum that she took as a freshman for introducing her to the field.
“[ISC] really opened my eyes to the idea that science could be so interdisciplinary,” said Venkatesh. “I knew before then that I wanted to do biology, but I discovered through ISC that I really enjoyed using computational tools to study biology.”
It was also through ISC that chemistry professor Michael Hecht first took note of Venkatesh’s scientific proclivity and talent.
“[ISC] is a course that a lot of people struggle with, but she was a student who got the reputation of thriving in that environment.”
Hecht has since taught Venkatesh in a graduate chemistry course, describing her as “one of the top two students in the course” and “an excellent scientist.”
“She’s very deep and broad, intellectually — deep in the sense that she has a keen understanding of complicated things, but also broad in the sense that she moves very comfortably from computation and data science to experimental lab work,” said Hecht.
Yost echoed this observation and added that it made her exactly the kind of student that the Rhodes Trust seeks out every year.
“You can talk about the intricate details of molecular biology with her, and she will demonstrate a deep, nuanced knowledge — and then you can zoom out and ask her how the sociopolitical realities of Britain will affect the study of biology, and she will also be able to talk about it in a nuanced way,” Yost said. “Samvida truly embodies the general scholarly mindset."
During her time at Princeton, Venkatesh’s active involvement with scientific research has taken her from the International Genetically Engineered Machine synthetic biology competition to the Mount Sinai Undergraduate Research Symposium. After interning in the lab of physics professor Thomas Gregor, she joined the lab of molecular biology professor Ileana Cristea, where she is taking a computational approach to studying viral infections and host-pathogen interactions.
“I have rarely seen this level of performance from any undergraduate or graduate student,” said Cristea of Venkatesh’s work in the lab. “She is extraordinarily reliable, and no challenge seems hard enough for her.”
Venkatesh’s passion for science is not confined to laboratories. She also expressed a strong interest in science communication and education — one that has led her to become a head peer tutor at the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, as well as a science writer for the ‘Prince.’
“I’ve always been interested in science, but I also enjoy studying other things, like language and linguistics,” Venkatesh said. “My love for a lot of diverse subjects is what led me to education.”
She hopes to teach or write about science more extensively in the future, stressing the critical role that education plays in advancing scientific knowledge and progress.
“Science isn’t just done by people in labs, especially biology. Its final goal is to help humanity in some way…. I think there’s a very tangible connection between science and the way people live their lives, so it’s important that people can contribute to science, and the only way they can do so is if they have a better understanding of what science itself does.”
Several individuals noted that the people-oriented mindset that Venkatesh brings to her studies consistently permeates other aspects of her life.
“No matter how busy Samvida is, no matter how many incredible things she is doing at once, she always has time for friends,” O’Leary said, adding, “She never makes it known how much she actually has going on.”
Hecht, who was also the former head of Forbes Residential College, said that it is nearly impossible for residential college heads to get to know all of their students, but that Venkatesh has stood out to him ever since she was a freshman.
“The students I do get to know are the ones who are outgoing and special in some way. And I got to know Samvida,” Hecht said.
Hecht also mentioned that many members of Venkatesh’s freshman year zee group were similarly “outgoing and special.” Venkatesh herself said that some of her fellow zees still comprise “[her] closest friend group today” and represent “an integral part of [her] social and even academic life at Princeton.”
Both O’Leary and Yost were members of that zee group.
“Samvida has really been the rock of our group. People coalesce around her because she is such a great friend and leader…. She is an incredible role model,” O’Leary said.
“She is a person with a lot of integrity,” Yost said, observing that Venkatesh is “very much a team player” who has always supported everyone around her in both an academic and a social capacity.
Hecht also called Venkatesh a leader, “but not in the sense of someone who marches at the front of the parade and gets everyone to follow. She takes care of her people. It’s what a good leader does.”
Venkatesh describes her work as a residential college adviser at Forbes as one of her most meaningful extracurricular activities and “a chance to experience Princeton again.”
“First-years come in with all these ideas and ambitious plans about what they want to get out of Princeton, and it’s really nice to see that and be a part of it and help them in some ways,” she explained.
“Samvida does a great job of creating community,” Yost said. “Watching her create a community for underclassmen as an RCA has been incredible.”
“I know her zees call her ‘Mom-vida,’” added O’Leary.
As Venkatesh contemplated the next few years of her life, pursuing graduate studies at Oxford and beyond, she expressed gratitude for the people who have made the journey possible for her.
“My family has always been super supportive. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for them when I wanted to study in the U.S., but they wanted what was best for me, and they’ve always wanted that…. [My professors] have been so wonderful and helpful across all my classes, and I have good relationships with many of them because they are all so eager to mentor.”
She also enjoined Princeton students to prioritize sleep as she has done because “it’s what makes us run!”
Venkatesh said she hopes her Rhodes Scholarship win will encourage more people to seek out similar opportunities because now they know that they do not have to be “special in an unattainable way” in order to succeed.
“The Rhodes Scholar is such a fancy title, but we are all real, human, ordinary people,” she concluded.