While Yassin Watson and his sister were the first in their family to attend college, he says that throughout his childhood, his parents strongly emphasized the importance of education. Because of their support and encouragement, Watson shares that he decided to set his sights high to find a college that would challenge him academically while fostering his personal growth.
Growing up in Atlanta, Watson was familiar with the academic rigor of Georgia Tech and the driven nature and focus of the students who typically attend the Institute. He confides that, despite his preparation, during the first semester of his freshman year, “I was academically challenged beyond comparison to anything I experienced prior.”
The challenge did not intimidate Watson — it invigorated him. It also led him to appreciate and love Georgia Tech’s “incredibly diverse community of students from different countries, majors, and life experiences,” he adds.
And over the six years he has spent at Georgia Tech since then, Watson has kept busy. He’s graduating this May with degrees in biology and industrial engineering, along with minors in social justice and physiology. On campus, he serves as president of the Georgia Tech chapter of Beta Beta Beta (Tri-Beta), and is involved in GT Veggie Jackets, the GT-e Distance Running Team (which he co-founded), and the GT Healthy Jacket program.
He has also focused on service, particularly in his senior year. “The pressure of the pandemic pushed me to ask myself what I can do in a virtual capacity to continue my service as a steward of my community,” he shares. As a result, last summer Watson contributed pro bono research with industrial engineering to help with creating resource allocation modeling tools to facilitate a safe return to campus in fall 2020.
Over the course of the past school year, he also teamed up with the executive board as president of the Georgia Tech Biology Honor Society to “work diligently to navigate challenges in revamping our digital infrastructure — to increase student engagement and ensure a successful series of event programming.”
In his tenure at Tech, Watson has also completed several semesters of wide-ranging research across the School of Biological Sciences, Stewart School of Industrial Engineering, and Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering.
Watson graduates as an aspiring physician-astronaut “carving my own path to advance the intersections between medicine, engineering, and space exploration.” That journey will keep him in Tech’s orbit for a few more years — Watson plans to stay at Georgia Tech to pursue his master's in health systems and a certificate in astrobiology before applying to medical school.
Watson recently joined us virtually for a Q&A on his time as a student and what’s next:
So, how have your initial expectations of Georgia Tech compared to your actual experience?
As a native Atlantan, I’ve spent my whole life near Georgia Tech. Throughout my grade school years, teachers never hesitated to sing the praises of our world-renowned institution — in its ability to attract some of the brightest minds on the planet. Additionally, my parents always emphasized the importance of education in improving the quality of life for others and for myself, so Tech was on my radar long before my enrollment.
After graduating high school and finally starting my journey here, I considered a handful of different career options but didn’t have the slightest idea of what would actually take place over the next few years. Like most, I heard many, many stories about Tech’s rigor, and after my first semester, I rapidly became acquainted with it … it was also during my first semester here that I began to realize how truly diverse, unique, and inspirational our community is.
Every single person I’ve met at Tech is incredibly gifted at something — whether or not that gift is directly related to our school’s reputation as a trailblazer of technology. Just as many athletes, musicians, chefs, and poets study for finals in the CULC (Clough Undergraduate Learning Commons), [so] do future policymakers, engineers, scientists, and activists. And with each new team I joined over the subsequent semesters since my first, I witnessed, time and time again, that a single Yellow Jacket can wholly embody many of these identities.
If there is one initial idea that I had about Tech that was flipped on its head after my actual experience here, it is the realization that we are not a monolithic group of students solely concerned with academic achievement.
Our hard work in the books translates to what we are passionate about outside the classroom walls, and it has been a blessing to be welcomed into such a highly motivated community of multi-talented students while navigating the oftentimes rocky transition of blossoming into young adulthood.
What is the most important thing you've learned at Georgia Tech?
This past pandemic year has given us all a sobering reminder that life tends to be more enjoyable in the company of others. So if there is any nugget of wisdom to single out as the most important thing I’ve learned while at Tech, it is the need for us to have community in anything we do.
The mutual exchange of support between myself and the groups I’ve been a part of during my time here have laid the foundation for unbreakable friendships and professional relationships that I cherish deeply.
Whether in classes, clubs, internships, or research, the process of collaborating with others to reach a shared goal has consistently proven challenging — yet ultimately fulfilling. As they say: if you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together!
What is your greatest achievement at Georgia Tech?
My greatest achievement at Tech has been my involvement in research on Alzheimer’s disease. I could speak endlessly to the extraordinary demands of formulating and testing research questions, but what makes this so personally significant to me is that my team’s work will contribute — even the slightest bit — to [fewer] families being severely impacted by the vicious effects of the disease.
My dad had Alzheimer’s disease throughout my childhood until his passing a couple years before I started college. Reginald Watson was one of the kindest, smartest, and hardest working people I’ve ever known and is one of my greatest role models in life. Although he died when I was just coming of age, many experiences I’ve had in the years since have brought me emotional closure in his absence.
But it was the countless mornings, evenings, and nights I spent in the Pathology Dynamics Laboratory on Atlantic Drive that have served as one of the most cathartic outlets for mourning. I cannot thank my research mentor and principal investigator, Dr. Cassie Mitchell, or any of my beloved teammates enough for allowing me to work with them on something that means so much to me — and millions of other families worldwide.
Which professors or classes made a big impact on you?
Far, far too many to list them all here. Different professors helped me at different times of my journey for the different needs I had at each different stage! For my first four and a half years at Tech, I was solely studying industrial engineering and social justice, so I received priceless guidance and mentorship in my career, academics, and personal life from countless faculty in the College of Engineering and Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts.
In the past year and a half, amongst faculty in the College of Sciences, Dr. Shana Kerr’s introductory biology class made me absolutely certain that I wanted to stick with the subject when I was just minoring in it at the time. Her enthusiasm for life sciences is impossible to miss!
Dr. Kerr then warmly welcomed me under her academic advisement when I made the jump to pursue a full biology major soon after taking Dr. Adam Decker’s human anatomy class and lab. His unparalleled passion for understanding the most intricate details of the human body at every scale was one of the largest motivators for me to commit my career to medicine.
Similarly, Dr. Benjamin Holton’s survey of medicine class presented the special opportunity to perform case studies, conduct medical ethics debates, dissect hearts, and engage in many other invaluable experiences regarding the field of healthcare — all while in a small group setting. Dr. Holton was serving as the director of Stamps Health Services when I took his class, and it was surreal to get his first-hand account of the unfolding pandemic as it rapidly affected our global and local community, especially since we had just gone over a case study on the 1918 influenza pandemic just a few weeks prior.
Coincidentally, Dr. Holton was one of the first people I came face-to-face with in our first semester back on campus this school year as he kindly evaluated me after I broke my shoulder while skateboarding. (Holton continues to serve as senior director of Stamps Student Health Services, and continues to help advise and lead Georgia Tech’s Covid-19 response and recovery efforts, including campus testing and vaccination clinics.)
Moreover, Dr. Colin Harrison was the professor of both of my introductory biology lab classes, and has served as the advisor and principal investigator for my senior research thesis on biology laboratory education. His work in diversity, equity, and inclusion in science motivates me to use my platform for similar initiatives throughout my career.
Lastly, I would be remiss not to mention Dr. Emily Weigel. She was my professor for ecology lab, behavioral biology, and organismal biology — and has repeatedly gone far above and beyond her teaching duties to truly look out for and care for her students in every single class I’ve had with her. Dr. Weigel seamlessly blends a variety of instructional strategies that combine inquiry — collaboration when needed — innovative assignments, and overall a ton of fun! She is a professor who is truly able to see students for who they are and what makes them unique, all while managing to motivate them to learn the material. And I can’t help but geek out when we chat about birds and mushrooms.
Georgia Tech and our College of Sciences is very lucky to have such compassionate, intelligent, and creative faculty in the School of Biological Sciences, and I am just as lucky to have been their pupil.
One more question: What’s your advice for fellow students?
Build community in your friendships, organizational involvements, and professional relationships with faculty, and you will have a solid support network to help you explore all that Georgia Tech has to offer, even when times get very difficult. And always acknowledge and thank the tireless efforts of our staff who work so hard to keep our community clean and safe!