“As an undergrad, I finally thought I knew what I wanted to do, but I’ve been constantly swayed by new things that are creative and exciting,” says Viswajit Kandula, this year’s recipient of Chemistry of Life Processes Institute’s Chicago Area Undergraduate Research Symposium Award (CAURS) undergraduate award.
A third-year biomedical engineering undergraduate enrolled in Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering and Honors Program in Medical Education, Kandula will earn his undergraduate degree in three years, then immediately begin training as a medical doctor at Feinberg School of Medicine.
Each year, one undergraduate student receives the award based on his or her academic achievements and scientific interests. Recipients receive $1,000 for interdisciplinary research with a CLP faculty member, purchase of scientific supplies and registration and travel costs to the Symposium in April 2019 where the recipient is required to present his/her research. The CLP CAURS program was established and continues to be supported by a CLP alum and Executive Advisory Board member, Dr. Chandler Robinson.
“I wanted to have the experience of going to conferences and sharing my research because I think the work I’m doing is really innovative and has the potential to revolutionize medical therapies. Plus, being able to talk to like-minded individuals is something I’ve always enjoyed doing and found very rewarding,” Kandula says. “It also opens your mind to other types of research that addresses similar questions using different, unique approaches.”
After spending his first two years at Northwestern conducting basic science research in molecular biosciences, Kandula joined a new subgroup last summer led by Joseph Muldoon, a fifth year Interdisciplinary Biological Sciences (IBiS) Program graduate student in the lab of CLP member Josh Leonard, Associate Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering. The subgroup’s aim is to develop a framework that will allow for the implementation of customizable therapeutic strategies. Currently, therapies such as CAR T-Cells will search for one antigen before invoking an immune response. Muldoon’s group aims to develop a platform that would enable cells to sense multiple cues and integrate this information to induce a more appropriate immunological response. This would greatly improve the specificity of cell-based devices to create safe, effective and long – lasting treatments.
“A big reason I decided to pursue research in a new field was because I wanted to do something that was more in line with medical therapeutics; I wanted to work on a project that I thought could scale to actual medical treatment,” says Kandula.
“Traditional labs have people who are primarily chemists or biologists, but I gravitated towards a CLP lab because these labs have individuals who integrate viewpoints and approaches from various fields to tackle problems in a more well informed manner,” he said.
For example, although the Leonard lab mostly focuses on developing cellular devices and biomolecular engineering, Kandula likes how the lab aims to solve medical challenges using a design driven research process. Before conducting experiments in the wet lab, the researchers first use computational models and statistical analyses to accurately predict experimental outcomes in order to develop platforms that look promising. The team also utilizes the High Throughput Analysis Lab, one of eight core facilities managed by CLP, to rapidly screen and characterize the behavior of their engineered mammalian cells.
Another passion that drives Kandula is the idea of practicing medicine, with a likely focus in neuro-oncology.
“Before I was born, my grandfather had a stroke that paralyzed him on one side of the body,” says Kandula. “When I was in third grade, he had another stroke that paralyzed him on the other side, so while he was still able to comprehend and was aware of everything that was going on around him, he wasn’t able to respond, react, or communicate his thoughts in any way.”
The mystery behind his grandfather’s condition baffled the 10-year-old and motivated him to work with mostly elderly patients in a rehabilitation center while in high school. “Elderly patients always have a story to share and it was very enlightening to learn so many things from all these people who were from different cultures, backgrounds, and socio-economic status,” he says. “The experience as a whole was very, very rewarding and further cemented my desire to pursue medicine.”
Despite his busy schedule, Kandula also volunteers for NU Tutors, a campus organization that provides affordable tutoring and mentorship for Evanston high school students, and he is part of the school’s squash team which travels to the Northeast every winter to compete against teams from all over the country. His ideal career would encompass his love for teaching, biomedical research and collaborating with others.
“I’ve learned through talking to other physicians that you don’t have to limit yourself. You can still do everything you want to do as long as you’re focused, have a plan and are able to manage your time. Most of all, though, I hope to work with patients one-on-one because that’s kind of been the dream from day one.”
by Lisa La Vallee