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

Portrait of ASU grad Rohit Nandakumar.
May 06, 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.

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.

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