Northeastern student dreams to revolutionize precision medicine, wins Mitchell Scholarship

Originally Published at News@Northeastern

Growing up, Vivek Kanpa never wanted to be a computer scientist like his parents. They would try to teach him how programming works by showing him the “Hello, World!” program or Java language.

“And every year I just didn’t understand it. I was like, ‘I am never going to do this,’” Kanpa, 21, told Northeastern Global News.

But he did become interested in solving big human problems at a young age. While visiting his parents’ home country of India for the first time at age 7, Kanpa noticed that some children had to drink water from ditches and puddles, swarmed with flies.

“That really affected me,” he says. “I just didn’t enjoy seeing the inequality for water resources there.”

When he got older he started thinking about how water filtration in developing countries could be made more sustainable and cheaper. Luckily, he was going to a STEM-heavy public high school in Livingstone, New Jersey, which allowed him to focus on water filtering research for about two years.

“I presented at a couple of conferences and applied for a couple of awards,” he says. “That was a very prominent phase in my life that was my starting point in research.”

Now a Northeastern senior, Kanpa was recently awarded the 2022 George J. Mitchell Scholarship. The scholarship was founded in 1998 by Trina Vargo, a former foreign policy adviser to U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, during the critical years of the Northern Ireland peace process, to allow future American leaders to develop interest in Ireland.

In August, Kanpa will travel to Ireland with the other 11 awardees to do a year of graduate studies in artificial intelligence for medicine and health-related research at University College Dublin.

It took Kanpa some time to figure out the direction he wanted to go with his undergraduate studies at Northeastern.

vivek kanpa working on laptop
Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

When he first arrived on the Boston campus, he was determined to study environmental engineering and maybe go to medical school.

“When I was thinking about careers, it was always driven by what problem do I want to solve? And then, how do I want to solve it?” he says. “For me, it was always medicine, and so for the longest time, I thought I wanted to solve that problem by being a doctor.”

At Northeastern, Kanpa realized that he could be making a difference in people’s health in other ways. He had changed his major a few times before he nailed down what exactly he was interested in.

“I wanted to work more on the numbers side of things,” says Kanpa, who will graduate with degrees in data science and biology, and a minor in mathematics.

He is grateful for the academic flexibility he found at Northeastern.

“I also had very supportive professors,” Kanpa says, pointing out Javier Apfeld, associate professor of biology in the College of Science; Alina Oprea, associate professor in the Khoury College of Computer Sciences; and John Rachlin, associate teaching professor at KCCS. “A lot of the teaching staff has been instrumental for me.”

Oprea, who taught the undergraduate machine learning and data mining course that Kanpa took in January 2022, says that he would always listen, ask thoughtful questions and come to discuss his projects and aspirations during office hours.

“He seems very passionate about research in biology and medicine and applications of machine learning in this space,” she says. “He’s very motivated to go to grad school and solve some of these difficult challenges. I think he’s a very talented student.”

The two co-ops Kanpa did were “outstanding,” he says. First, he got to work at Takeda Pharmaceutical Company, where he was introduced to software and web development principals in an applied setting.

“That gave me my foundation of being a good developer,” Kanpa says. “There’s so much that you learn on the job that you just can’t learn in a classroom.”

At his second co-op with a biotech company, Revolution Medicine in Redwood City, California, he was able to start thinking creatively, while being a part of the bioinformatics team. The company is developing pharmaceuticals to target cancer, and Kanpa developed graph models that predict whether a certain cancer drug would make it through the gastrointestinal tract to a tumor site.

Kanpa is especially interested in cancer research because it currently has large datasets of high quality, which he is hoping to use in his own research. Using machine learning and AI, he wants to create tools that would match a patient to a specific treatment, most beneficial for them.

“There are so many drugs that have variable effectiveness in each patient, but what if I could use each patient’s own genetic data to predict the drug that would be the most effective for them?” Kanpa wrote in an essay for his Mitchell scholarship application.

He explains that there are about 25,000 genes in the human genome plus variants between genes.

“There might be variants in the specific genetic mutations causing the disease,” he says. “In order to maximize the beneficial effect or the therapeutic effect that a drug has, I want to correlate or associate certain genetic variations with positive outcomes in patients.”

Machine learning and AI are instrumental for his idea, because they help find patterns in a sea of data that would be impossible for a human to sift through.

Kanpa is hoping that studying further in Ireland, which has been adopting digital personalized medicine approach called eHealth and has a lot of big biotech companies with research and development offices, will benefit his preparation for his own research work and a doctoral program. He is also excited to go on solo trips in Ireland and other European countries on weekends.

Kanpa describes himself as an extravert and has been very active in the Northeastern community. He has given close to 100 tours around the Boston campus, being a part of the Northeastern tour guide organization, Husky Ambassadors, helped first-year foreign students to transition to college life as a residential assistant and has given presentations about the university for underprivileged students in high schools as a student diversity and access fellow.

“When I’m working it is very intense work. But then when I do have a weekend off, I’m traveling to a new state or going on a 20-mile run,” he says. “I think that I’ve been trying to take advantage of being young by doing as much as I can.”

Alena Kuzub is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at Follow her on Twitter @AlenaKuzub.

Last Updated on April 10, 2023