Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
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Javon Mullings ’16 wins Watson Fellowship to study youth robotics programs

Javon Mullings ‘16 credits robots with helping him to discover his interest in bioinformatics, a discipline that combines computer science and biology.

To be clear, robots served as subjects for Javon to design and build. As a high school student, Mullings joined a robotics competition club at his high school and discovered the lure of computer programming and creative problem-solving. It changed his life.

“Robotics involves structural and computational innovation that turns one’s mind into a problem-solving machine. I know it did for me,” he said. “I want to discover how communities worldwide are impacted by youth robotics programs.”

Mullings has won a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship that will allow him to explore that question, by observing and serving teenagers participating in robotics clubs in Cambodia, India, Ireland, South Africa and Japan.

“I want to know how these experiences influence not only the lives of those involved but also the communities to which they belong,” said Mullings, who is a Wheaton College Posse Scholar from Brooklyn, N.Y.

The Watson Fellowship provides a one-year, $30,000 grant for purposeful, independent study and travel outside the United States. The fellowship allows students to develop and pursue an original project that is personally significant to them.

High school robotics clubs hold great significance for Mullings. He got involved as a high school freshman at Boys and Girls High School in East New York, with an eye toward improving his college admission application, not realizing the ways in which he would be changed.

“It allowed me to think differently in terms of solving problems,” Mullings said, adding that building a robot to handle a specific task, such as picking up items, teaches both creativity and the importance of a disciplined process. “It’s not about the specific problem. It’s the process you go through that’s important. You can apply that process to any problem you encounter.”

At Wheaton, Mullings took his interest in computer programming and science in a new direction, choosing to double major in bioinformatics and business and management. Since the second semester of his freshman year, he has worked in Professor of Biology Bob Morris's lab, applying computer analysis techniques to study the growth and development of cilia (slender, microscopic, hair-like structures that extend from the surface of nearly all mammalian cells). He also has developed his skills in bioinformatics research through summer internships at Harvard and Cornell university research labs.

“It’s a lot of independent work,” Mullings said of his experience in Professor Morris’s lab, which he describes as a warm and welcoming place. Most of the research being done relies on other methods of inquiry, he said. “I really have to take the lead when it comes to computer analysis. I’m the expert in bioinformatics in the lab.”

Beyond the class and the lab, Mullings has sampled the breadth of Wheaton’s offerings, from participating in theatre and working as a resident assistant to competing as a sprinter on the track and field team. He had never run track in high school, but dove into it after being inspired by former Wheaton track star Ashante Little '14, who won the indoor and outdoor national championships in the 400-meter dash.

“The reason I started was that people told me I couldn’t do it,” he said.

Mullings hopes someday to work in the pharmaceutical industry and to eliminate economic barriers to drug development. In fact, he presented a plan for pooling the research expertise of graduate students to advance development of new drugs at a social entrepreneurship event Wheaton held at Mass Challenge in the fall.

For the next year, however, Mullings will be focused on exploring clubs similar to the one that helped him get started in computer programming. The task of spending a year abroad, conducting a study in unfamiliar countries and cultures, will be a challenge, he admits, but one that will be a learning experience.

“This next year is definitely going to be an investment in myself,” he said.