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IGNITING THE FLAME OF INNOVATION - WATERLOO TEEN’S AWARD-WINNING RESEARCH LANDS HIM AT HARVARD UNIVERSITY
By Suzanne Forcese
In Grade 11, as a student of Sir John A. Macdonald Secondary School in Waterloo, he was named the Grand Prize Winner of the International BioGENEius Challenge (2018) – the largest biotechnology event in the world. He speaks four languages; has been involved with university lab work since he was 13; has won numerous public speaking awards in both English and French; has been recognized as best delegate, Model UN Conferences, focused on climate change mitigation; is an accomplished pianist; and a local youth STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) leader. He has a strong belief in science and its potential to change the world.
Sajeev Kohli, from Waterloo, Ontario, spent an afternoon speaking with WaterToday from his “dream come true” new residence as a freshman at Harvard University.
Eighteen year old Kohli has attracted the attention of the international science community with his cancer-treatment technology, a project (he began at age 14) that focuses on a method to build nanoparticle-based drug carriers that can be used to treat cancer and a wide range of diseases.
“Nano particles are really tiny particles. Graphene is a type of nanoparticle. People call it the superhero of material science because it is incredibly strong, conductive and it’s easy to change its properties. I synthesized a novel array of graphene and graphene oxide derivatives from graphite upcycled from excess CO2 emissions. There’s a lot of talk about carbon sequestration – instead of seeing carbon dioxide as a pollutant, why not put it to a positive use.”
It’s that positive spin that Kohli has attached to all his endeavors since he began his science journey in Grade 5. “I had a great teacher who told me to go find a problem and dared me to find a solution. I focused on recycling, took my project to my first science fair – which I thought was the coolest thing ever.”
The flame was ignited.
Kohli went on to win science fair competitions throughout his school career, culminating in what he describes as “the most magical week of my life.” Representing Team Canada at The Intel Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), Kohli won the grand prize for his nanoparticle-based drug carrier development pipeline for cancer treatment. “It changed my life. Being judged by Nobel Laureates, the best of the best in industry, meeting other candidates from all over Canada-- that I am still friends with, getting to speak with all these amazing science experts. It was definitely the game changer for me.”
The game kept up-leveling with the next competition. “It was such a surreal experience, 175 contestants from all over the world, Nobel Laureates, the world’s most successful CEO’s. It is where I met my closest friends.” As the grand prize winner of the world’s most coveted biotechnology research competition, BioGENEius, Kohli received an invitation by NSERC to showcase his research to Prime Minister Trudeau and the Minister of Science, Kristy Duncan. Early acceptance to Harvard came next. “It was the only University I applied to. I fell in love with Harvard at the BioGENEius Competition. It was where I wanted to continue my research.”
How does an eighteen-year-old accomplish so much? “It took a lot of perseverance and support from my family, friends and mentors. My grand-mother who is my best friend kept saying, ‘If there’s a will there’s a way,’ and I just kept that as my guiding light.”
The back-story wasn’t always a walk in the park. “I was just a 13-year-old kid and I knew I had to work in a university lab if anyone was going to take me seriously. I sent out 100 emails to university professors requesting to be mentored and got 99 rejections.”
It was Dr. Brian Dixon of the University of Waterloo, and Canada Research Chair in Fish and Environmental Immunology, who changed everything. “My Grade 11 biology teacher suggested I approach him. “He’s really a wizard. He helped me shape my project looking at climate change and fish populations. His work is so revolutionary and such an inspiration to me. I got to work with several grad students, and Dr. Pu Chen and Dr. Alireza Yazdi who helped me build up my project over 4 years. They are all like family to me.”
“I was just a kid and still going to school.” It definitely became a balancing act and an exercise in time management. “I would take the bus to the lab at 4:00 AM and then to school for 9:00; and back to the lab after school where I would work evenings, sometimes until mid-night.” By his last semester, life became easier as Kohli’s teachers allowed him 2 credits for his lab work and he was able to complete his English requirements by writing about his research. “My teachers were all so incredibly supportive.”
Kohli himself is incredibly supportive. “When I was 14, my uncle was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of kidney cancer. He was in the hospital for three months – the worst three months of my life as I sat by his bed watching him suffer.”
That was the motivation. “I couldn’t bear to watch that kind of suffering and I wanted to do something to help all cancer patients. I wanted to find an alternative non-invasive treatment option.”
Where there is a will there is a way. At the age of 14, he began his award-winning research.
“Nanoparticle-based drug therapy has been around for a long time. But there are obstacles in chemotherapy and radiation therapies. When this kind of drug therapy is released into the blood stream all the cells are hit – both the healthy cells and the cancer cells. I looked at past research and asked myself: Can we take a weakness and turn it into a strength?”
When a nanoparticle enters the blood, it becomes covered in proteins which mask it from the surrounding environment. The nanoparticle loses its target. “It’s basically just floating around, and this is the main reason why existing treatments have so many side effects.”
“I found a way to build these kinds of carriers where you can actually control the formation of this layer of proteins around the carrier to promote the specific targeting where it needs to go.” To complement his lab work Kohli also developed a bioinformatics algorithm to figure out the best procedures in advance.
“I applied this method to lung cancer, breast cancer and colorectal cancer and found that this method was 10 times faster to implement, 7 times less expensive and 5 times more effective than existing gold standards and this method is also universally applicable. With slight modifications you can use it for the treatment of other cancers and even other diseases like neurodegenerative diseases.”
Kohli is continuing his research at Harvard where he is enjoying the flexibility to design his own course load and where he feels “blessed to be working on a new project. I can’t disclose it just yet but there is some hugely insane research looking at mitigating disease in the field of genome editing. I am so privileged to be part of a Dr. David Liu’s lab where breakthroughs are being made.”
Not forgetting the tremendous support system that has been buoying his success, Kohli is mentoring students – something he began in high school. Through video conferencing he is encouraging youth and helping students prep for university.
Sajeev Kohli, who now has his sights set on attaining an MD PhD, encourages kids to “follow that thing that keeps you awake at night -- that one thing that you have to find the answer to. Age is not a limiting factor. Being a kid doesn’t restrict your ability to change anything. Whether it’s science, technology, engineering, arts, math…whatever… once you ignite the flame of innovation and apply it to your associated sincerity, education, and perseverance there is nothing that can hold you back.”
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