From Googly-Eyed Robots to Gene Editing with Sajeev Kohli – Alumni Profile
Sajeev Kohli (he/him)
2014, 2015, 2018 – WWSEF, 2015 – CWSF, 2018 – ISEF
I would say that Youth Science Canada changed my life and gave me the skills I needed to become an analytical thinker, a confident presenter, and all in all, a youth scientist.
As you’ll see, Sajeev is busy addressing a range of issues facing different groups of people around the world, and his experiences with science fairs have shaped the way he’s able to think deeply about a range of subjects. That’s the secret of project-based learning; it’s not necessarily about the information you learn, but rather the process you develop along the way.
We chatted with Sajeev about his adventures in STEM, here’s what he had to say.
1. Can you tell me about your science fair experience & how you got started?
I started in Grade 5 by making a tin can robot with googly eyes and a motor for my school fair, which was awesome! In Grade 7, I made a navigational aid for the visually impaired based on a cardboard box with ultrasonic sensors and buzzers attached, to present at my school fair and at WWSEF, which was again incredible. In Grade 8, I built a system to detect “residential emergencies” such as basement flooding, household fires, etc. and alert homeowners via text or email – I named it REDMA for Residential Emergency Detecting Multifunctional Apparatus. I presented this project at my school fair, WWSEF, and had the unbelievable opportunity to present it at CWSF 2015 in Fredericton, in one of the most memorable weeks I’ve experienced. I then spent three years putting together a project focused on developing a new way to build nanoparticle-based drug carriers for siRNA delivery in the context of cancer treatment, working with several research institutions in Waterloo, Toronto, Seattle, and elsewhere. I took this project to my school fair, WWSEF, and had the incredible opportunity to represent Canada at ISEF 2018 in what has been one of the greatest weeks of my life!
2. Can you tell me about your career journey up to this point?
In university, I started working on applications of novel gene-editing technologies such as base editing and prime editing for the treatment of a wide range of diseases as part of the Liu Lab at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Additionally, I’ve been spearheading an initiative to develop an automated SMS messaging system for Haitian women in Creole, to provide essential postpartum health-related information as part of a student-run non-profit called the Global Alliance for Medical Innovation.
I’m also part of a startup called Lumiere Health International, where I conduct research for an initiative meant to reduce the cost of prescription drugs in the U.S. for asylum seekers by 60-80%; I’ve worked in a youth-run homeless shelter, providing emergency and transitional housing information for HIV positive individuals and those of lower socioeconomic status facing evictions, and helped those experiencing homelessness with academic tutoring and vocational preparation; and I’ve been spearheading a grassroots policy initiative associated with implementing communally accessible naloxone in commuter train stations in Cambridge for 6 months now, putting together a coalition of experts in science, public health, harm reduction, medicine, and political leaders on the regional and state levels to help coordinate this pilot intervention to combat the opioid epidemic in Cambridge.
I’ve also served as a teaching assistant for courses focused on introductory and advanced synthetic problem-solving in the context of organic chemistry and am an Associate Editor of the Journal of Young Investigators, the world’s largest undergraduate research journal. Editor’s Note: In summary, Sajeev likes to stay busy!
3. What made you interested in pursuing this work?
Ever since my uncle’s diagnosis of renal cell carcinoma and the two subsequent relapses and my own diagnosis of Crohn’s disease, I’ve been interested in researching the treatment of genetic diseases. Reflecting on the economic burdens associated with the accessibility of treatment in both of these cases additionally drove me towards wanting to pursue initiatives associated with trying to mitigate issues related to accessibility and affordability of healthcare. I’m passionate about working to mitigate disparities in healthcare services and accessibility in under-resourced communities, both on the domestic and international level, for those who are under-served and hope to pursue a career as a physician continuing to push this goal forward.
4. How did your CWSF/science fair experience contribute to your life path/career goals?
CWSF introduced me to the field of scientific research, helped me become a better communicator, a more confident speaker, and taught me the value of perseverance and continuing with an idea even if at first obstacles seem to come to light. All of these skills have helped me throughout my college experiences.
5. Are there any certain role models/people who inspire you?
My grandma is my biggest role model; she’s been with me throughout my life. When I was doing science fairs in elementary school, middle school, and high school, and even now, she is incredibly supportive of my research pursuits. She’s always incredibly optimistic about everything I do and helps push me forward when I need it the most. She’s incredibly smart, the funniest person I know and makes the most amazing food you’ll ever eat. She’s my best friend in life and my biggest inspiration.
6. What STEM-related achievement are you most proud of?
I think I’m most proud of the work that I’m currently in the process of doing as part of the Liu Lab at the Broad Institute. Working with prime editing and base editing to optimize the technologies in the context of other diseases takes a lot of time and effort, but the results are really exciting and have the potential to make a significant difference in expanding potentially non-invasive treatment options for those currently suffering from these diseases. I’ve also had the wonderful opportunity to communicate and work with mentors from other research institutions, including Columbia University, UC Irvine, and Harvard Medical School in the context of these projects, which have been wonderful experiences.
7. What are the main challenges facing you in your work?
I think the biggest challenge for me has always been balancing research with school and other extracurricular commitments. I try my best to plan everything in advance, leave buffers, and finish assignments and project milestones in advance of established deadlines, but ensuring a proper balance between everything is always a difficult task. I feel lucky that I have an incredible network of mentors throughout all the projects and courses I have taken on in life, who help keep me on track and provide the guidance I need to keep moving forward.
8. What are the key learnings you’ve identified through your work?
I think the biggest lesson is to always keep moving forward. Things will take longer than initially anticipated and there are going to be countless hurdles. Staying patient and persevering will always pay off in the end.
9. What is one piece of advice you have for young scientists embarking on their project?
I would suggest starting as early as possible. The more time you have on your hands, the more learning you’ll be able to accomplish, the farther along you’ll get in your project, and the more you’ll get out of the overall research experience. I also wouldn’t discount any ideas as being too simple, because sometimes the simplest ideas can have the biggest impact.
10. What do you hope the future looks like?
I hope to pursue a career as a physician, working to help treat underserved and under-resourced communities both domestically and around the world. I’m also very passionate about conducting research into the development of interventions to increase the accessibility of healthcare services. Whether through engineering translational solutions or moving forward with practical health policy, I hope to be able to continue to explore projects in that space.
11. What would you say to potential sponsors or partners of Youth Science Canada?
I would say that Youth Science Canada changed my life and gave me the skills I needed to become an analytical thinker, a confident presenter, and all in all, a youth scientist. By supporting them, you effectively play a role in changing the lives of hundreds of students around the country interested in STEM so I would hope they continue to receive support for all the incredible work they do.