COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Luke Oaks simply doesn’t know how to stop, or even slow down.
The Troy High School graduate is simply far too motivated.
“My dad (Todd) talked about this with me, said, ‘Sometimes I worry that you’re going to burn out,’” Oaks said. “But it’s really just so much fun to invest all the great things you’re given in life and give back.”
And now he’s being rewarded with yet another way to give back.
Oaks, who just finished his freshman year at Texas A&M in biomedical engineering, was selected as a 2016 Beckman Scholar by the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation. And as such, Oaks received the ability to begin an independent research project of his choosing, beginning this summer.
Oaks and classmate Ashley Holt were the two students selected for the program from Texas A&M, one of only 12 universities in the country invited to participate in the program.
“I just recently got named a Beckman Scholar, so I’ll be starting my own project now,” Oaks said. “I’ll be building on my experiences and what drove me to come here to A&M in the first place.
“Really, it’s empowerment that’s been given to me by virtue of financial support. As an undergraduate, I’ll have about 50 thousand dollars in funding to go forth with a research project. I don’t think I could have possibly been working on what I want to the way I will be if I didn’t have that support. I cannot say enough just how privileged and fortunate I am to be here at A&M and just the amount of opportunities I’ve been given as a result.”
And as for the project itself, Oaks is motivated by a cause especially close to his heart.
“I lost my grandfather (Ernie L. Vagedes) in 2013 to stage 4 lung cancer that was diagnosed with two days before he passed away,” he said. “The big thing ever since then for me has been how can we go about improving detection methods for cancer.
“Sure, there might be a cure out there. But the big thing for me is I don’t think it’s fair to people like my grandfather, who served in Vietnam … you die two days after you’re diagnosed? I don’t think that’s right.”
So Oaks is putting the weight of his Beckman award behind a project to help with early detection by developing “a novel biomarker platform technology that used surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy for lung cancer diagnosis,” according to Texas A&M’s Beckman Scholars announcement.
“I’ve been working for a while to really understand what goes on with lung cancer, and now I’m starting a project of my own, working on developing a new form of sensor with this new technology that’s being developed here at A&M,” Oaks said. “I’m really excited.”
It’s a long way from where he started when he first got to the school.
“The funniest part is just how much it’s been a turnaround since the beginning,” Oaks said. “I committed to come to A&M the same day I visited. But after that, I went to orientation week the first week of school, and I was sitting out in the courtyard in front of my dorm, I didn’t see anyone I knew yet, didn’t make any good friends yet. And I was just sitting out there crying, thinking what am I doing? Where is my base? And now, nine months later, I feel like I’m on top of the world.”
Oaks has worked on countless projects since graduating from Troy.
The summer before getting to Texas A&M, he did contract work with the Air Force on heart rate sensors. During his first collegiate semester, he worked with a research team on the relationship between lymphatic failure and radiation therapy. After leaving that due to lack of funding, Oaks joined another research team working on developing an implantable glucose biosensor.
“That’s really cool, because my mom (Michele) actually is a diabetes educator, and she’s always been really passionate about improving how we go about detection and keeping people informed. It’s really great to have the opportunity to work on a technology that does that. Really, I fell in love with research.”
But he still has time for an old love, too.
A star tennis player for the Troy boys tennis team in high school — and still the most recent Trojan to qualify for the state tennis tournament, accomplishing that as a junior — Oaks plays for Texas A&M’s club tennis team.
“Just as it was in high school, I’m still a student-athlete here at A&M,” Oaks said. “I’m not on the varsity team. I think they finished top 10 in the nation and are just an incredible team. I realized that my investment here at A&M was an academic one, but at the same time, tennis is still a passion.”
Oaks traveled to North Carolina with the club team for nationals after it was one of 64 teams to qualify, and for next year he is the Vice President of the team and is working on starting up match play through the summer.
He also left an impression with the remaining members of the Trojan tennis team, who went on to win the program’s first ever Greater Western Ohio Conference North Division title this spring and the team’s first league title since 2003. After each big win as the season wound down, his old teammates made comments like “we wish Luke was here,” “Luke would be proud of us” or “we’re doing this for Luke.”
“I was with them in Trojan spirit,” Oaks said. “It means so much to me to know that, even when I’m down here in Texas, I still have so much support from the Troy community.”
And naturally, Oaks still supports Troy, serving as an advisor at the Lincoln Center — which earned him Texas A&M’s Freshman Class Star Award for Leadership. And now he’s also been selected to Pearson Higher Education’s advisory board, one of 15 college students in the country to earn such a selection.
All of which was added to his lengthy list of accomplishments at Troy, where he was a National Merit Scholar, and National AP Scholar and graduated from as the valedictorian.
“Some great things have come my way, and I’ve always been passionate about making sure I’m giving back to pay it forward,” Oaks said. “A lot of times, school is difficult, and it can be a struggle to find motivation. But every time I step in the research lab, I’m driven by something bigger than myself.”
Which ensures that he’ll never, ever stop.
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.