By Prachiti Dalvi
“Research enables me to think about a question that excites me and helps patients,” says Trinity senior Akash Shah. A biology major, philosophy minor, and a candidate for the Genome Sciences and Policy Certificate, Akash became interested in genomics as a freshman in the Genome Focus. Originally from Fullerton, CA, Akash was drawn to Duke because of its its immense biomedical research enterprise. He also loved the fact that at Duke, the medical school, law school, and business school were on the same campus as the undergraduate campus.
Intrigued by the research his professor Dr. Hunt Willard was conducting, he asked to get involved. His work in Dr. Willard’s lab dealt with artificial human chromosomes. More specifically, he was working with others in the lab to identify which regions of the chromosome would be deleted when transformed into human cells.
Now, Akash works in the Nevins Lab, where he looks at candidate genes in the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) pathway: an important pathway in many cancers. When growth factors bind to the external portion of the receptor, the receptor becomes activated. Side effects of receptor activation include tumor growth and metastasis. When scientists target genes associated with this pathway, they can increase tumor cells’ sensitivity to pathway inhibitors and better prevent tumor cell reproduction.
The advent of computational genomics has allowed for major advances in the field. Fifteen to twenty years ago, cloning genes was considered a PhD project, and now, it is something an undergraduate can do.
Akash’s favorite aspect of research at Duke is its collaborative nature. Faculty members work with another and across departments. His research is not limited to labs at Duke. In fact, he as also worked with professors at UCLA and Harvard. The culture of research varies from one university to the next; thus, Shah encourages undergraduates to do research at different institutions. “It gives you a chance to succeed in different cultures.”
When he is not in the lab, Akash enjoys playing cricket and exploring local restaurants with friends. During his time at Duke, he has been involved with numerous organizations, and has become an integral part of the Genome Research and Education Society (GRES). During his sophomore year, he founded a program in which undergraduates shadowed other undergraduates doing genomics research. In order to make research more accessible to undergraduates, Akash has helped organize career talks, including MD/PhD information sessions. After graduating from Duke in the spring, Akash hopes to begin medical school, and eventually pursue a career in academic medicine so he can continue conducting research. He has worked extensively in cancer genomics research and hopes to explore cancer stem cells in the future.