Joshua Babu '22 Awarded Rhodes Scholarship

Written by
Office of Communications, Jamie Saxon, Princeton University
Nov. 21, 2021

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. 

Wafa Zaka is also a Rhodes winner. She 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.