Co-founder of GT-e Distance Running Team and an Alzheimer’s researcher, Yassin Watson holds two undergraduate degrees from Georgia Tech, one in industrial engineering and one in biology. He is currently Research Team Co-Lead in the Pathology Dynamics Laboratory, a research lab in the GT Department of Biomedical Engineering, where he is involved in Alzheimer’s research. Watson has worked as an undergraduate researcher and teaching assistant, as well as a diversity ambassador with the Office of Student Diversity Programs. Outside of Tech, he spends time on sustainability and social innovation initiatives.
1) What about Georgia Tech made you decide to attend as well as get degrees in both industrial engineering and biology?
Being a first-generation college student and native Atlantan, I chose to study industrial engineering in the country's top program at Georgia Tech because the applicability of systems analysis offers a limitless array of work opportunities, and it has always been my preference to open doors of possibility rather than take a narrower approach. After my Senior Design project with a medical device manufacturer, I decided to pursue an additional degree in biology with a minor in anatomy & physiology to cultivate my passion for the scientific side of healthcare.
2) You seem to admire the work of Harriet Tubman and Jonny Kim. What about these two individuals appeals to you or that you would like to emulate?
Through my social justice minor coursework, studying people like Harriet Tubman taught me that risking everything, including your own safety, is worth mutual liberation, and I hope to emulate the unmatched strength she had in her selfless commitment to others. Jonny Kim is an endless fountain of inspiration to me, as well for the sheer grit and determination that led him to be a US Navy SEAL, physician and the first Korean-American astronaut.
3) What have been some of your take-aways as a Diversity Ambassador for Georgia Tech?
Diversity and inclusion discussions are almost always polarizing to people since they usually involve an individual's personal sense of normalcy. And when our perspective is called into question, it can feel like an attack on who we are. But a core tenet of advancing social equity is the necessity of discomfort. To try to change people’s hearts from a baseline position of uneasiness is no simple task, and it requires having the patience and empathy to realize that all people are a product of the specific experiences that decorate their individual journey through this life.
4) The intersection of engineering and medicine has been a constant thread in your career so far. How will this play into your long-term career goals?
I plan to continue my education and work experience in both engineering and the biological sciences to be the first Yellow Jacket astronaut to enter this line of work as a physician specializing in aerospace medicine. I excitedly look forward to contributing to our school's multi-faceted efforts in exploring the frontier of outer space, and I aspire to be a physician who will do absolutely anything and everything required to ensure the health and well-being of my patients, which may very well include fellow Yellow Jackets floating amongst the stars with me as we collaboratively research the effects of microgravity on body systems.
5) Recently you have been doing research in Alzheimer’s Disease. Has this work provided you with a perspective on what needs to be done to help prevent this disease?
Alzheimer's is personally significant to me since my late father suffered from the condition throughout my childhood until his passing. Through my research, I have become very excited about the advancement of Machine Learning, particularly as it is being leveraged to resolve aggregate trends in neurocognitive medicine. We have done a wonderful job as a species collecting information about this disease, but it will take the unprecedented power of Artificial Intelligence to make sense of the complex interplay- at the metadata level- that underlies all physiological mechanisms.
6) As a teaching assistant, did you enjoy being in the classroom and do you think that you might pursue an academic career?
My experience as a TA for a diversity-and-inclusion-themed current events course made me certain that I will further pursue teaching in some capacity. In that role, I made cherished life-long friendships with my instructor, fellow TAs, and a few of my students! I am extremely passionate about learning, which has also led me to focus on experimental design in biology education for my Senior Research Thesis- the culmination of my biology degree.
7) Much of your young adulthood has been spent giving back to a variety of organizations like food banks and to Georgia Tech. Was there an event of epiphany that has led you on this path to serve?
When I was 11 years old, I awoke before sunrise on a sweltering Saturday morning to provide food donations to underserved populations in Clarkston, GA with the rest of my Sunday School class. We were fasting in observance of Ramadan, and although we were handing out chilled refreshments all day, we were unable to quench our own thirst. But the gratitude of those we served was more than enough nourishment to sustain my spirit as I learned a lesson that I have carried with me ever since: that even when facing my own challenges, dutiful service to fellow human beings is the rent I will always pay for my room here on this earth.
Watson served as a TA for a diversity-and-inclusion-themed current events course.
8) With a long list of accomplishments, two unusual items stood out – Veggie Jackets and GT-e Distance Running Team. Can you tell us a little about these two extracurricular activities?
Veggie Jackets is a huge community of students passionate about leading a plant-based lifestyle. The unshakably sacred fragility and inherent value of life in all forms has been apparent to me since a very young age, and coupled with a long-standing love of nature and animals, I could not help but be drawn to the group's open arms. Furthermore, the GT-e Distance Running Team is a group of ISyE students and faculty dedicated to training for and participating in running events, primarily put on by the Atlanta Track Club. Along with myriad classmates and professors, we have completed, as a running family, both the Atlanta Half-Marathon and Marathon, which are 13.1 and 26.2 miles, respectively.
9) What does social innovation mean to you and why is it so important?
Social innovation, to me, is the collective effort to improve the lifestyle conditions of as many beings as possible. In my work centered around the topic, one of the most prominent challenges that I have encountered is the dangerous segregation between social studies and physical sciences. When an organization is homogeneous, the applicability and accessibility of its goods and services produced are reflectively monolithic. Any effective group wishing to advance social equity should include artists, policymakers, scientists, engineers, etc. to ensure contributions from the full spectrum of the human experience. To build something robust, sustainable, and just, diversity of every kind is necessary. This is the foundation of true innovation, applicable even beyond social work.
10) You have accomplished a great deal already at Tech and have many interests in and outside the classroom/lab. How do you handle all your passions as well as demands of being a student at Tech?
From my first job as an industrial engineering intern, I learned to apply Key Performance Indicators to my personal life. As a result, I have kept fine-detailed logs of how I spend my time. This data is automatically populated and processed into a dashboard that I designed to visualize, in color code, a graphical break down of the exact amount of time I spend in class, exercise, research labs, extracurricular commitments, and general career development on daily, weekly, and semesterly scales. It also outputs measures of central tendency and variation to help me facilitate scheduling and efficient time management. And I am a huge fan of calendars!