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Fast Tech, Faster Meds

Anvita Gupta, a sophomore at Stanford University, said she was “only a little nervous” when meeting President Obama at last year’s White House Science Fair. If one watches their meeting on YouTube, the 19-year-old biocomputation major and Arizona native certainly doesn’t seem unsure relaying the challenges surrounding new medical discoveries to the president. “We can use machine learning and artificial intelligence to make drug discovery faster and more cost-effective,” she said, surrounded by paintings of former presidents and ornate chandeliers.

The budding scientist only has a few years of research under her belt, but she’s already making big waves in the community. With several notable awards behind her, a planned internship at ETH Zurich — a world-renowned tech university — and one of her drug discoveries being considered for preclinical trials in China, Gupta is well on her way to making innovative changes at the crossroads of healthcare and technology.

Advancing through the rounds of finalists during the Intel Science Talent Search in 2015, she was selected as one of eight students to meet the president and discuss her work with leading professors at Harvard Medical School. Simply put, her goal was to utilize advanced algorithms in the hope of cutting down the time and cost involved in identifying new medicines.

“It currently takes one billion dollars and ten years to develop a single drug,” said Gupta. “Hopefully, using these new techniques will make the process faster and the drugs cheaper for patients.” Her time at Harvard paid off, to say the least, as she already identified promising new drugs for cancer, tuberculosis, and Ebola — with several TB patents moving to preclinical trials in China.

Gupta has been kindling her passion for biology and computing since her second year of high school, which sparked after enrolling last-minute in the school science fair. Partnering with Professor Sangeeta Agrawal of Wright State University — with nothing more than a light background in robotics clubs and her ThinkPad — Gupta unknowingly was taking the first step in a long and illustrious career in science.

“The experience of presenting my findings is always the same for me, whether it’s just school or in the White House,” said Gupta. “I’m always nervous at first — but then my excitement and passion just takes over.” After completing her first project on protein mapping in pancreatic cancer, she became a published researcher at ripe age of 14.

What followed next was only a logical conclusion for this budding biocomputation expert. “I got hooked on the idea of using technology to make meaningful changes in healthcare,” she said. Currently, she’s working with Stanford’s Kundaje and Zou Groups, which use artificial intelligence to develop gene editing technologies and personalized medicine. Meaning, potentially dangerous mutations like cystic fibrosis and pancreatic cancer can be “cut out of our DNA” before it develops.

When she’s not editing papers — or genetic codes — on her ThinkPad, the busy student is flexing her finesse for leadership. She’s the founder of the growing nonprofit Learning IT, Applications and Software (LITAS). What began as a local club in her hometown of Scottsdale, AZ, has quickly grown into a national organization which teaches young girls how to code, and encourages them to pursue tech careers.

Still only a sophomore, Gupta’s not exactly sure where her work will take her in the next few years. But regardless of where the future takes her, she smiles thinking back on her first childhood whimsies of becoming a pediatrician. While that specific dream has shifted, the spirit remains the same. “My passion is to lead a life that’s useful for others,” she said, “to lead a life bigger than myself.”

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