Junior computational and applied mathematics major Sanket Mehta always liked math. “I was fascinated by it, the logic, the intuition, the pattern seeking,” he said. “I’d read the encyclopedia as a kid, especially the section on space exploration and I was captivated by how math applied in so many places.” He came to Rice undecided about what he wanted to do, but quickly came to realize that a CAAM major would provide him with a wealth of tools and allow him to pursue his passion.
He was particularly keen on how math could dovetail with the practice of medicine. As a Rice/Baylor Medical Scholar, Mehta is guaranteed acceptance to Baylor College of Medicine at the conclusion of his undergraduate degree.
“There’s great potential for math and technology to work synergistically with medicine to push the practice forward,” he said.
Beginning in his freshman year, Mehta has been a researcher in Assistant Professor of Bioengineering Amina Qutub’s lab. Working with his mentor, Andre Schultz ‘17, a postdoc at MD Anderson Cancer Center, he’s been building mathematical models that analyze gene and protein expressions to devise more personalized patient care.
“Medical treatment often takes a one-size-fits-all approach,” he explained. “For instance, take Alzheimer’s disease, which is actually a bunch of diseases with different pathologies. We don’t know a lot about them, so we see them as the same. But with mathematical models and algorithms, we can determine how one disease affects a patient with certain conditions and how it affects another patient differently. From there, we can find more-tailored treatment options.”
He says the same ideas can be applied to treatments for cancer and other genetic disorders as well. Pancreatic cancer is different from ovarian cancer which is different from lung cancer, and Mehta says that by analyzing what he calls families of reactions, or the way a person’s genes and cancer cells interact, we can develop more effective cancer-treatment drugs. Qutub’s lab is applying these mathematical analysis methods on pediatric leukemia patients at MD Anderson Cancer Center, and Mehta is excited to be part of the research.
“What’s really cool about it is that our framework means each patient gets specific treatment tailored to him or her.”
Mehta loves that Rice’s partnership with Texas Medical Center institutions enhances his education. It was a driving factor to why he chose the school. Partnerships and outreach are important to him. In high school, he worked on multiple projects designed to help younger students get involved with STEM learning, and that’s something he’s continued here at Rice, where this year he serves as the co-president of Catalyst, the university’s premier undergraduate research journal and science communications platform. Last year, Catalyst began working with Energy Institute High School on a sister publication, Eureka, which allowed high school students to conduct research and write up their findings in a scientifically rigorous manner. This year, Mehta says, Catalyst has increased its outreach efforts to another school, Young Women’s College Prep Academy, and the group is in talks with other Houston schools. The publication’s members are also hoping to use some seed money from the Center for Civic Leadership to develop toolkits for classroom teachers around the country.
“The kits will be a series of experiments they can do in class, and then there are tips and guidelines about how to examine the results, and most importantly, how to communicate it,” he said. “It will be a great thing for teachers to incorporate into their curriculum.”
He said he enjoys giving younger students the opportunity to conduct hands-on research and broaden their skills. “When you’re writing something, you have to consider sources – what’s a trusted source, what’s the previous research in the area, and how do you present that,” he said. “This helps kids strengthen their abilities to analyze and investigate. And it’s the best feeling in the world to see their joy when they see their name in print.”
Mehta knows his future involves math and medicine. And he also knows that it’s the perfect melding of his passions – and that being at Rice was a great choice to combine them.
Holly Beretto, Engineering Communications.