Drive and curiosity inspire graduating student’s high-impact research

May 6, 2022

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2022 graduates.

Rohit Nandakumar, a 2022 biomedical informatics graduate of the College of Health Solutions at Arizona State University, couldn’t wait to get into a lab and start conducting his own research. In fact, he started pursuing research opportunities with Associate Professor Valentin Dinu while only a junior in high school. What fuels this passion for discovery? Nandakumar says it started with Legos. Portrait of ASU grad Rohit Nandakumar. Download Full Image

Like many boys, he loved working with his hands and building things with those famous little bricks, but he soon found a drawback.

“At a certain point, you run out of tools. You have to go to the store and buy new stuff,” Nandakumar said. “The beauty of programming, which is what my research entails, is that you never run out of tools. You just keep writing code. Programming gave me an outlet to build things and be creative without having to worry about running out of pieces.”

Paired with a strong interest in medicine, Nandakumar began conducting research in high school and brought his first big project with him to ASU. Ultimately, he developed an artificial intelligence algorithm that could identify protein complexes that pharmaceuticals can bind to, which revealed ways to repurpose medications to treat cancer. For instance, Nandakumar found nadolol, a cardiac beta-blocker normally used to treat high blood pressure, could also potentially be used to treat some gastrointestinal cancers.

This work earned Nandakumar a spot among the finalists at the 2018 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, the world’s largest international pre-college science competition. In addition, he was named 2018 Arizona Future Innovator of the Year by the Arizona Technology Council and published this work as first author.

Other projects of Nandakumar’s include developing an algorithm to differentiate duplicates on DNA sequencing machines 4.5 times faster than the current leading algorithm developed by the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT. This achievement was chalked up during his time as a Helios Scholar at TGen, and it scored the Best Poster Award at the TGen 2019 Symposium.

Beyond the lab, classroom excellence gained Nandakumar a place in Barrett, The Honors College, where he was one of only two students to earn this year’s Barrett Outstanding Leadership and Service Award. Nandakumar’s honors thesis, which identified biomarkers associated with dyslexia, has also been submitted for peer review and publication.

Along with his research and scholastic achievements, Nandakumar is committed to service, and he has been since high school. In his pre-college years, he worked with city government to allocate $500,000 worth of funding for youth organizations. At ASU, Nandakumar also helped create health programming to combat narcotics addiction in Native communities and has served as president of the Students of Biomedical Informatics (SoBMI), an organization that includes both undergraduates and graduates. 

Nandakumar’s ASU studies were funded in part by a National Merit Scholarship and a corporate-sponsored scholarship from CVS Caremark.

Nandakumar shared more about his ASU experience.

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: My aha moment was in high school, when I first learned how to code artificial intelligence algorithms. I wanted to use my newly learned skills to make the biggest impact in my community, and I realized a combination of biology and computer science/artificial intelligence was the best way for me to do that. Since then, I’ve worked as a bioinformatician, and after I came to ASU, I wanted to continue working in bioinformatics. This led me to naturally choose biomedical informatics as my major.

Q: What is an interesting moment, story or accomplishment in your ASU career?

A: My story with research started with me learning programming independently in middle school. I had been interested in medical technology since then and independently conducted research, but it wasn't until junior year of high school that I really honed in on developing medical technology with the help of Dr. Valentin Dinu and my high school research teacher, Dr. Michael McKelvy. I had still largely completed my high school research autonomously, but after I came to ASU, I worked in Dr. Dinu's lab as a data analyst and published my high school research with him.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: I think something that enriched my perspective at ASU is the diversity in experiences that my classmates all have. I've had classmates that worked in industry before coming to college or represent an underrepresented group in college. In an academic environment, having that diversity substantially improved the quality of my education, as everybody has something valuable to contribute in group discussions or projects. I think this ultimately goes back to ASU's charter regarding the school’s quality of education being "measured not by whom we exclude, but rather by whom we include and how they succeed.” This part of the mission statement really resonates with me, as I've been able to learn from my peers’ backgrounds as well.

Question: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU because I knew I could get a great education at a very reasonable cost, as I am an in-state student.

Q: What is some of the best advice you learned from a professor?

A: One of the best pieces of advice that I've heard from a professor is to slow down and to truly take it all in. College goes by so fast, and there are times when things get overwhelming, but remembering to step back and put things into perspective is key to enjoying college.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: My piece of advice is to try everything you've been interested in with your career while you're in college. The wealth of resources available at ASU make it a great place to experiment with your passions and interests and see if any of them (or maybe even a combination of them) is something you want to do in the future.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: I've got a couple good spots! The Secret Garden is a good place to ponder in if you've got the time. When it comes to studying, I usually study in Armstrong Hall or the Barrett Library as it's pretty quiet in both of these places.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I plan on taking a gap year and applying to medical school.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would create low-cost and scalable medical technology to improve health care in low-income countries.

Story written with contributions from Barrett Honors College student Lily Barrera.

ASU graduate’s fascination with space exploration leads to PhD in geological sciences

May 6, 2022

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2022 graduates.

This spring, ASU alumnus Jonathan Hill will graduate from the School of Earth and Space Exploration with a PhD in geological sciences. He graduated from Arizona State University with degrees in aerospace engineering (2005), geological sciences (2016) and Russian (2005).  Scientists working in a cleanroom. In the ISTB4 cleanroom. From left to right: School of Earth and Space Exploration PhD graduate Jonathan Hill with Regents Professor Phil Christensen and lead engineer Greg Mehall. Download Full Image

In 2010, Hill began pursuing his doctoral degree while working as a mission planner at ASU's Mars Space Flight Facility. Currently, he operates the THEMIS camera orbiting Mars on NASA's 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft. 

As a senior in high school, Hill had his mind set on attending UC-Boulder for his undergraduate degree. But that all changed when the assistant dean of ASU's Barrett, The Honors College came to speak at his school. 

"I was impressed when she said that cameras orbiting Mars were controlled from the building across the street from the honors college dorms," said Hill. "But I never would have imagined that I'd be working in that building five years later helping to control those exact same cameras!" 

Hill is part of the Christensen Research Group at ASU, building and using instruments on spacecraft to explore the geology and mineralogy of Mars and other bodies in space. Regents Professor Philip Christensen, a plenary geologist in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, leads this group of scientists and researchers. 

"Jon came to SESE with an engineering background and did his PhD on a set of science topics," said Christensen. "This combination of science and engineering interdisciplinary culture is what the School of Earth and Space Exploration is intended to do."

Hill previously operated the mini-TES instruments on the Mars Exploration rovers Spirit and Opportunity for over five years. He will participate in mission operations for the OSIRIS-REx sample return mission to the asteroid Bennu (instrument operations for OTES, the OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer) and the Europa Clipper mission to Jupiter's icy moon Europa (instrument operations for E-THEMIS, the Europa Thermal Emission Imaging System), once those missions reach their targets. 

After graduation, Hill will continue working in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. 

He answered some questions about his time here at ASU. 

Question: What was your "aha" moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: I've always been fascinated with space exploration, but there wasn't a single event that led me to study Martian geology. After graduating with my undergrad degree in aerospace engineering, I was doing operations on multiple Mars missions. After years of working with so many great Mars geologists at ASU, I realized that I had learned enough from them that I could start contributing to the science side of the missions as well, which led me to pursue my PhD in geological sciences. 

Q: What's something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: My first geology field trip to Death Valley really opened my eyes to the kinds of stories that rocks can tell us, especially how we could learn about other planets by studying similar terrains on Earth.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU? 

A: As an undergrad, I decided to sign up for a Russian 101 class because I wanted to work for NASA, which works closely with the Russians on the International Space Station. On the first day of class, Dr. Lee Croft introduced himself by saying that he believed that our grades were 50% our responsibility and 50% his responsibility. I had never had a teacher or professor take such clear responsibility for the success of their students before, and I wanted to make sure that I lived up to my half of that deal. Instead of taking just Russian 101, I ended up double-majoring in Russian because I enjoyed the classes and the professors so much!

Q: What's the best piece of advice you'd give to those still in school? 

A: It's really easy to get stuck seeing only one path toward your goals. It's often helpful to pause and think about how taking a slightly different approach, or even a drastically different direction forward, might be better for you in the long run.

Q: What are your plans after graduation? 

A: I'm planning to continue working as a mission planner for ASU's THEMIS camera currently orbiting Mars, but I want to continue contributing to the science side of the mission as well.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle? 

A: During my time at ASU, I've really come to appreciate how everyone learns in their own unique way. I would spend that money on increasing the amount of personalized instruction in STEM fields at all levels so more non-traditional learners could enter and contribute to those fields.

Media Relations and Marketing Manager, School of Earth and Space Exploration