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Gut check: Anju Saxena ’21 will share work on how diet affects the brain

The Freeman Lab during summer of 2018. From left: Renata Buffalino '20, Anju Saxena '21, Juhi Saxena '19, Maria Melville (a 2019 graduate of Benedict College) and Caroline Daly '19.

Dollars to doughnuts, Anju Saxena ’21 will see her name in a peer-reviewed scientific journal before she enters graduate school. Make that a maple doughnut.

“Whenever I see a place that has a maple doughnut, I go crazy,” said Saxena, a neuroscience major whose mentor, Assistant Professor of Biology Linnea Freeman, started a tradition several years ago, taking her lab students to an Augusta Street sweets spot.

“She has worked with me for at least three years, so she’s been a big part of that tradition,” said Freeman. “It’s ironic because my research is on how high-fat diets affect the brain.”

Anju Saxena ’21.

On April 13, Saxena will showcase her work during the 13th annual Furman Engaged, held virtually this year, when she unveils her 27-page thesis, “Sex Differences in Gut-Mediated Neuroinflammation.”

Roughly translated: your gut has a trillion or so good bacteria called microbes. Feeding them bad things, like high-fat, high-sucrose doughnuts, really can mess with your head – even more so for males, as the study shows.

“And yet our lab tradition is to go eat a high-fat diet together,” said Saxena with a laugh. “So we always wonder if we’re really experimenting on ourselves.”

The daughter of Naveen Saxena and Vinita Srivastava, both local physicians, Saxena caught the brain wave back at Riverside High School in Greer, South Carolina, when her sister would come home from Furman; Juhi Saxena ’19 graduated with a bachelor’s in neuroscience and now attends Wake Forest Medical School.

“It was a shared passion between us,” said Saxena.

In fact, the two collaborated on the elder sister’s own Furman Engaged presentation, which involved neuroinflammation. Furman Engaged features presentations across disciplines and celebrates immersive learning experiences available through The Furman Advantage, which provides every student with a personal, integrated four-year pathway that emphasizes mentoring and advising.

“The brain is really cool,” said Saxena. “Without the brain, nothing else works, and when you’re in the neuroscience program, you learn exactly how it all works. What amazes me is that there are so many places we could go wrong, that we could mess up, and yet we work.”

Saxena (second from right) working with her classmates in Freeman’s lab before the pandemic.

Saxena certainly works, and Freeman applauds her ethic.

“She is quiet and humble, but a true leader,” wrote Freeman in a Furman Fellows recommendation letter.

Of the younger Saxena’s departure, Freeman says, “I’m so sad that their legacy is coming to an end. I told Anju the other day, via text, that I will miss her. But I hope – and expect – we will stay in touch.”

For now, Saxena plans to take a gap year and stay close to home, perhaps working for a nonprofit such as Safe Harbor. She cherishes her family’s closeness (they have even worked together on papers), just as she treasures Furman’s small class sizes and bonding with her professors.

“I know she is on to great things,” said Freeman.

Added Saxena, “I’m just going to keep doing what I love and enjoying the journey of learning and knowledge, and see where life takes me.”


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