Amazing Students

Anita Qualls

Anita Qualls (Photo by Dorothy Kozlowski/UGA)

Anita Qualls believes in “grit over wit” and has worked hard in the lab, in the classroom and around the world to pave her path toward a career in academic medicine.


Johns Creek, Georgia

High school: 

Johns Creek High School

Family ties to UGA: 

None! I’m the older sibling that had to take the treacherous first steps out of the nest. I actually have strong family ties to the University of Kentucky, which made for an interesting dynamic when I was at the UGA versus UK game this season in Lexington. Rest assured, the Dawgs took the W and confirmed for the hundredth time that the choice I made was the right one!

Expected graduation: 

Spring 2019

Degree objective: 

B.S. in biology

Other degrees: 

Minor in Spanish and nutritional sciences, Certificate in Personal and Organizational Leadership

University highlights, achievements, awards and scholarships: 

I would first like to note that I am a firm believer in grit over wit. Each highlight I describe below is a result of persistence, hard work, being willing to ask others for help, and a bit of luck!

As a Regenerative Bioscience Fellow, I have worked in Dr. Call’s skeletal muscle dysfunction lab for the past three years. I received three Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities research assistantships and was one of 30 students awarded the CURO summer fellowship. I have completed three semesters of research credit, presented at 12 conferences, and recently finished an undergraduate thesis, “Elucidating the Relationship between Skeletal Muscle Injury-Induced Inflammation and Mitochondria,” which is being submitted for publication next year. I will receive the CURO distinction at graduation. I am very fortunate that my research experience in Dr. Call’s lab prepared me to be a competitive applicant for summer research opportunities at other institutions.

After sophomore year, I spent eight weeks at Harvard Medical School as a research intern for Dr. Pankaj Agrawal at Boston Children’s Hospital. I collaborated with Harvard physicians at the Manton Center for Rare and Orphan Disease to write three pediatric clinical case papers on rare genetic disease and novel treatment methods. While I faced a steep learning curve of interpreting genetic testing and describing biochemical pathways that I had not yet studied in a classroom, I worked through the medical jargon and stacks of clinical papers to gain a comprehensive understanding of each patient’s case. The day-to-day responsibilities of my internship included utilizing patient data to create graphs, writing case summaries, dissecting DNA sequencing results with genetic counselors, gathering edits from physicians, and analyzing related research papers.

This past summer, I was selected as part of the New York University Summer Undergraduate Research Program. For nine weeks, I conducted research with Dr. William Carroll, a leading expert in acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), at Perlmutter Cancer Research Center. Dr. Carroll’s laboratory focuses on understanding the biological pathways that drive drug resistance in ALL. By contributing to pediatric oncology research, I was working to identify unique mechanisms of cancer cell resistance that can serve as a target for more effective, less toxic treatment.

After volunteering in local elementary schools throughout freshman year, I met with three friends to discuss how we could mitigate the lack of child health education we observed. Together, we founded Health for Kids (H4K) to connect Athens youth with UGA students who deliver health education resources and encourage the children to actively pursue a healthy lifestyle. As president, I coordinated our executive team’s push to build relationships with the students and staff at Oglethorpe Elementary via afterschool events. We raised awareness of a specific health topic at each meeting, hosted a speaker, and concluded with small group lesson planning to be implemented in the afterschool program. To expand the club’s impact, I worked with Experience UGA, a partnership organization that brings every Clarke County student for an educational field trip to UGA’s campus. Our executive board developed lesson plans covering hand washing, anti-bullying and hydration. In April, we conducted eight field trip days using our lesson plans for 1,082 elementary students as part of the second-grade public health field trip.

I am very grateful to have been an Honors teaching assistant for two years, where I taught a semester-long course to acclimate 15 incoming Honors students to academic opportunities and college life. I brought in guest speakers, facilitated roundtable conversations and presented on topics such as research, community service and study abroad. I aimed to create an inclusive environment where students feel comfortable speaking about their challenges and becoming friends with each other.

One of my favorite campus involvements throughout college has been the Honors Medicine in Literature Book Club. Fifteen students and a local OBGYN meet weekly in Myers lobby, the freshman Honors dorm, to discuss nonfiction books and medical news topics. I have been co-leader since sophomore year and I hope to re-create this club in medical school! What makes this group so special is Dr. Cline, a local OBGYN, who attends each week bearing dessert and a unique perspective as a working physician.

Stroke is the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S., yet most people are unaware of the risk factors, symptoms and urgency of a stroke. After identifying this issue in our community, I proposed a community outreach initiative to the director of stroke at Atlanta Medical Center. I developed a stroke awareness program for the Atlanta community and traveled to five senior living facilities and three community centers. Via presentations, flyers and blood pressure screenings, I addressed over 200 senior citizens about the risk factors and prevention techniques for stroke. Based on my interest in stroke care, I conducted independent policy research as an Honors policy scholar on the best methods to address the lack of acute stroke care in Georgia, which most notably include telemedicine. I wrote a health care policy piece titled “Time is Brain: Expanding Access to Stroke Care in Rural Georgia Communities,” which was published in Roosevelt 10 Ideas of Healthcare.

Lastly, I studied abroad twice in college and was a recipient of the Honors International Scholars Program. I studied nutrition education in Liberia, Costa Rica, during May after my freshman year. I shadowed pediatrics, nutrition and emergency medical personnel in El Hospital San Rafael Arcangel while gaining cultural and language immersion through a homestay. As one of only four Spanish-speaking students on my trip, I translated patient-doctor conversations and student questions. I also received the Costa Rica Foundation Scholarship. During May after my sophomore year, I traveled to New Zealand and Australia to study animal behavior. I conducted field research on the unique flora and fauna while also analyzing proposed sustainable development changes for dairy farming and the Great Barrier Reef via personal interviews and debates.

I chose to attend UGA because … 

… I knew the individual mentorship and tight-knit community the UGA Honors Program provides would support a go-getter personality like myself to succeed in college. Senior year of high school, I had an extremely hard time deciding where to attend, as I was trying to sort out the place I would fit in best and provide the most comprehensive pre-med experience. In the end, my decision came down to not what everyone around me was suggesting, but what I knew in my heart. Attending the University of Georgia means being thrown into a mixing pot of opportunity (research, clubs, study abroad, internships and more!) to keep up with the passions and perspectives of all 37,000-plus students. Every student has a chance to develop her or his professional self and form meaningful relationships with the UGA faculty if they wish to do so.

My favorite things to do on campus are … 

… take in the VIEWS! I am known for never taking the buses, as I prefer to do the daily hike up and down UGA’s rolling hills as a mini workout and time to play podcast or music. My favorite spots on campus to take in the nature include the North Campus quad (which is strikingly similar to Harvard’s campus, but without the hordes of annoying tourists), the Turtle Pond near Ecology, Myers Quad (brings back the freshman memories), and the Lake Herrick boardwalk.

The food scene in Athens is hard to beat. This year I live a dangerous two-minute walk from Cali N Tito’s on Lumpkin. It is tough to resist eating the Tito’s fish burrito with a side of maduros for lunch every day! Some of my favorite places to grab food with friends include the Grit, Gyro Wrap, Clocked (get the black bean burger with sweet potato fries and thank me later), Thai Spoon and Big City Bread. A Mama’s Boy biscuit with raspberry jam is the remedy to any and all stressors.

When I have free time, I like …

… to cook! Three semesters ago I joined a community supported agriculture program, which fosters a connection between small-scale farmers and the local Athens community. I pick up my fresh veggies once a week and get creative with meal prepping from there! I usually end up making a big batch of chili or salad packed with veggies, but recently I used a whole head of cabbage I got to make homemade kimchi. I enjoy baking as well and always try to have a few spotty bananas on hand to make my favorite banana bread to give to friends and mentors around campus.

In the late spring and early fall, I like to head to the North Georgia mountains to slalom water ski and relax with my family on Lake Chatuge. I feel very grateful that my parents and younger brother have lived in close proximity to me throughout college.

The craziest thing I’ve done is … 

… arrive in New York City for the first time and proceed to live in the middle of Manhattan for two months. Right after arriving, I walked around 5th Avenue overwhelmed, thinking the rest of NYC would be the same. Despite the initial culture shock, I fell in love with everything about the city. Along with a fellow UGA student, I shared a 20th floor apartment with floor to ceiling windows highlighting the Manhattan skyline and a view of the Empire State Building from my bed! At night, it sparkles on the hour just like the Eiffel Tower. I worked as a summer student researcher in a pediatric oncology lab at NYU Langone Health. Every evening was a new, exciting adventure involving some combination of friends, food and stumbling upon random events. Highlights include the Park Poet writing me a personalized poem, a person walking through Times Square holding two cats and a chihuahua in a tutu, the National Puerto Rican Parade, Smorgasburg elotes, Magnolia Bakery banana pudding, lying in Sheep Meadow, accidentally attending a wedding, Fourth of July fireworks on the East River, a Brooklyn Brunch Fashion Show in a warehouse, and NYC Pride. Leaving the city and the friends I made at the end of the summer was my hardest goodbye yet.

Anita Qualls has been conducting research since her freshman year. (Photo by Dorothy Kozlowski/UGA)

My favorite place to study is … 

… there are too many to choose from! Where I study depends on my mood and how social I want to be. Third floor in the science library is a classic pre-med location for when you need to study, but REALLY just want to be in the presence of your friends while trudging through ochem problems. For getting real work done, I like the Google room in Main Library as well as the big tables in Moore College lobby. Last semester during MCAT season, you could catch me pedaling away on one of the study bikes on fourth floor MLC while whizzing through flashcards. Nowadays, I tend to study at my house with a fuzzy blanket and cup of hot tea.

My favorite professor is … 

This question is impossible to answer because I have had so many incredible mentors during my time at UGA. That being said, my undergraduate experience and future career trajectory would have been completely altered without the constant support and mentorship from the Honors Program and assistant professor Jarrod Call.

The UGA Honors Program has truly been my home away from home. Every time I walk into the wood-paneled Moore College lobby, I am greeted by a smile from Chris at the front desk and run-ins with fellow Honors students. In particular, Jessica Hunt has served as an incredible resource through scholarship applications and connecting me with UGA alumni to meet with during my travels. Elizabeth Hughes is a wonderful, caring person located down on the first floor of Moore who has been there to revise multiple rounds of my resumes, personal statements and responses to interview questions from my freshman year through applying to medical school. I am also greatly appreciative for David Williams, Maria de Rocher and Martin Rogers (commonly known as Marty), who all have been important players in forming and maintaining my strong relationship with the Honors Program.

Dr. Call has been my research mentor since the second week of my freshman year when I decided to email him solely based on the words “knockout mouse” in his research description. He is one of the most thoughtful, curious individuals I have encountered, and the professor I am closest with on campus. I am extremely grateful to Dr. Call for taking a chance on freshman Anita and allowing me the autonomy to develop as a researcher in his skeletal muscle dysfunction laboratory over the past three and a half years. From traveling with the lab to present my research at Experimental Biology 2017 in Chicago to finishing my undergraduate thesis, Dr. Call has been a source of constant encouragement and inspiration.

Now, I would like to review each year of college to highlight the exceptionally talented and influential faculty I have encountered at UGA.

Freshman year, I took organic gardening as my FYOS with David Knauft, who made the transition to college a lot less scary with his kind demeanor and encouragement toward my green thumb capabilities. Every week he would bring in fresh pesto to sample that was made from the herbs we grew! I appreciated his passion for horticulture and the respect he had for each student in our class.

Sophomore year, I was selected as the only sophomore out of 60 students invited to join the Leonard Fellows, a Terry College of Business program called the Institute for Leadership Advancement. Laura Little and Jodi Barnes were influential mentors as I created a personalized development portfolio based on self-assessments, journaling, and leadership theories to increase self-awareness of leadership competencies and worked through a six-month serving-learning consulting project.

Following sophomore year, I went on the UGA Discover Abroad Australia and New Zealand Maymester with John Maerz, who is the best lecturer and one of the most impactful professors I have taken a course from. Since the first time I walked in his office, Dr. Maerz’s commitment to student mentorship has been very clear. His ability to inspire students to think more critically and better themselves is a rare talent. He makes it clear to all that hard work and perseverance, over pure wits, lead to success.

Junior year, Dave Hall in genetics and Erin Dolan in biochemistry stood out as going above and beyond in their engagement with students and their approach to teaching difficult science courses.

Lastly, I have to admit that I am not the biggest history fan. In fact, I pushed off my history course requirement until now, as I am taking “Introduction to U.S. History Since 1865” with Brian Drake. Dr. Drake has such a deep understanding of historical events that he is able to bring the past to life in a way that is intriguing and relevant to college students. I look forward to hearing his character role playing and impressive recall of minute details of historical events in his lectures every Tuesday/Thursday.

If I could share an afternoon with anyone, I would love to share it with … 

… my grandmother Anita. She passed away from breast cancer before I was born. My mom tells me about her often and I feel like I embody many of her characteristics and hobbies, such as her love for yoga and cooking. The type of cancer she died from now has different treatment with much better survival rates. I hope to continue oncology research to improve treatment and therapy outcomes partly to honor her.

If I knew I could not fail, I would …

… develop a method to reduce the obesity epidemic! More than 10 percent of the world’s adult population is obese and more than 1.4 billion adults are overweight. Obesity increases one’s risk for developing diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease, which are all preventable via careful health and weight management. Physical exercise and eating right are extremely important, yet highly disregarded in today’s society.

If money was not a consideration, I would love to … 

… have my own cooking show on Food Network! Couldn’t you tell based on my previous answers?? I grew up watching Ina Garten and Giada de Laurentiis incorporate fresh herbs and vibrant veggies into a masterpiece for dinner. I would love to be able to share my excitement for healthy, tasty food and desire to improve nutrition education via this sort of medium!

What is your passion and how are you committed to pursuing it? 
After working in three translational laboratories and shadowing physicians in the hospital setting, I determined that I am suited for a career in academic medicine. I intend to combine translational research, patient care and mentoring by working at a university hospital. Similar to my past mentors, Dr. Pankaj Agrawal at Harvard Medical School and Dr. William Carroll at NYU Langone Health Center, I hope to use an M.D. degree as a principal investigator, adjunct professor and practicing clinician.

I am excited to say that after 16 months of remote work with Dr. Agrawal’s laboratory, my first first-author paper, “Novel SPEG Mutations in Congenital Myopathies: Genotype-Phenotype Correlations,” was recently published!

After graduation, I plan to …

… travel around Europe immediately after graduation and attend medical school starting fall of 2019!

The one UGA experience I will always remember will be …

… lying out on a tarp in the middle of the Australian outback, looking up at the Milky Way. This was near the end of my UGA Discover Abroad Australia New Zealand Maymester and we spent the day hiking nine miles in the Australian outback to study the aborigines’ artwork (and spot some kangaroos!). That night in the Outback, the Milky Way was brighter and clearer than I had ever seen. After about two hours, we piled onto a bus and rode east overnight to Hervey Bay on the Australian coast. Upon arriving in the morning, we took eight-person planes to Lady Elliot Island, an island on the Great Barrier Reef the size of Sanford Stadium. I remember getting off the plane and being welcomed with a pair of crocs and a snorkel. Scratching a green sea turtle’s back, swimming with black and white finned reef sharks, being encircled by three 18-foot-wide manta rays, hearing the constant crackle-popping of oceanic shrimp, and watching parrotfish bite off chunks of coral are a few highlights of the incredible biodiversity I witnessed while snorkeling there.

Thank you UGA for the world of opportunities you have opened up to me. I couldn’t imagine my undergraduate experience any other way!