‘I Fell in Love with Tech.’ Two Northeastern Scholars Win Knight-Hennessy Fellowships

Northeastern has launched two scholars, Emerson Johnston and Conor Messer, on their tech journey. Johnston fell in love with tech policy during her research work at the university and Messer stood out in his challenging classes.

Johnston is graduating in May with a major in politics, philosophy, economics and history, culture and law—as one of the first to switch to the new combined major.

Messer is an associate computational biologist at the Broad Institute who graduated from Northeastern in 2019 with a major in biomechanical engineering.

The two accomplished students recently won the Knight-Hennessy Scholars fellowships. They will pursue master’s degrees at Stanford University beginning in the fall.

The scholars will participate in up to three years of programming that complements their graduate studies and prepares them to take on leadership roles in academia, industry, government, nonprofits and the community.

Both Johnston and Messer say Northeastern has helped them on their journey.

Messer says Northeastern allowed him to go abroad and experience new cultures, expanding his worldview.

“All of that has shaped the way I view my work and the things that I am passionate about and the things I want to pursue,” says Messer.

Northeastern, Johnston says, has allowed her to meet new people, from mentors to lifelong friends.

“I’m really grateful for the people,” Johnston says. “We have a ton of really cool people in our network who I call close friends.”

Johnston and Messer say they worked their way up to this moment.

Johnston overcame obstacles to succeed at Northeastern

For Johnston, she began her time at Northeastern with dreams of becoming a politician. But after giving it a go freshman year, she decided that was not her pursuit.

“It was exhausting,” says Johnston. “I admire anybody who can do electoral politics.”

She pivoted into policy advisement. As a research assistant she worked as a research assistant for professor Denise Garcia’s book, “The AI Military Race – Common Good Governance in the Age of Artificial Intelligence” with Oxford University Press, Johnston fell in love with tech policy.

“I fell in love with tech. Then, I fell in love with the money related to tech,” says Johnston. “Now, here I am.”

In 2020, Johnston founded the Interdisciplinary Women’s Collaborative in response to not finding enough female mentors around campus. The group continues to evolve and has grown from the original six members to over 60. The collaborative empowers female-aligned students to become leaders, create research opportunities, and start advocacy initiatives.

“It is truly an impressive and important accomplishment,” says Michelle Zaff, a senior cooperative education faculty member who served as one of Johnston’s mentors.

Johnston also participated in the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). In the Army, she served as an ROTC Cadet and civil affairs sergeant. Johnston is ending her service, but her experience was significant because she has veteran family members.

In addition, Johnston has gained significant research experience, including being recognized with the CS+ Ethics Research Award and the Northeastern University Summit Research Award. In spring 2022, she was awarded the Northeastern University Husky Innovation Award and was inducted into the Huntington 100.

Johnston will be pursuing a master’s degree in international policy focusing on cybersecurity at Stanford.

“She simply does not quit, and her tenacity always comes with smiles and an abundance of positive energy,” says Amílcar Antonio Barreto, professor and chair of the Department of Cultures, Societies & Global Studies. “She epitomizes the 21st-century Northeastern student: a go-getter (in her case, on overdrive).”

Messer impresses with dedication to problem-solving 

Messer, who grew up in Colorado, started his journey at Northeastern University in 2014 as part of the first cohort of bioengineering undergraduates, serving as a “guinea pig” for professors and faculty members to develop new classes.

“It was a cool experience, and I had a cohort of really incredible students that have all gone on to do some really cool things,” says Messer.

Messer also received mentorship from faculty members in bioengineering and other related fields.

“He stood out in the class immediately—curious, inquisitive, motivated and dedicated,” says Sandra Shefelbine, an associate dean for Space and Special Initiatives. “It was a pleasure to watch him explore his interests and grow academically, personally and as a researcher during his time at Northeastern.”

Messer graduated in 2019 with a degree in bioengineering with minors in computer science and vocal performance.

Following graduation, Messer was awarded a Fulbright fellowship in the United Arab Emirates at Khalifa University. He moved to Abu Dhabi to research surgical robotics.

Afterward, he landed a job at the Broad Institute, where he now works on cancer research, studying drug resistance.

“When I met Conor as a freshman here at Northeastern, I knew he was a very special individual. Brilliant, generous, caring and destined to make the world a better place for all of us,” says Jeffrey Ruberti, a bioengineering professor.

Messer worked in Ruberti’s lab during the summer of his first year at school. Messer’s images made the Journal of Tissue Engineering cover and made him an author. Ruberti also says that Messer was one of the best students he ever instructed in a very difficult core course, Quantitative Physiology.

“By the time [Messer] was accepted as a Fulbright Scholar, I was no longer surprised, just proud to be associated with him,” says Ruberti. “Finally, when I found out that Conor would become a Knight-Hennessy Scholar at Stanford, I thought quietly to myself, they will be proud too.”