Where Taking a Radical Approach Can Get You: Venkata Macha at TEDxBirmingham (Transcript)

Venkata Macha – TRANSCRIPT

During the summer after tenth grade, I started working with a cancer researcher at a local college. My dad knew other high schoolers who were working with research that summer. So naturally as a concerned Indian father, he thought that I should do the same. I learned many basic lab techniques, such as counting cells and handling micropipettes.

I also learned how to use Internet databases to find scholarly articles online. In fact, as a high schooler, I was told to use these databases to write a review paper for my professor. I was looking through these articles, but over time I began getting sidetracked into other interesting topics. I became obsessed with bio-sensors, diagnostics that could detect a variety of substances such as water toxins, tumor cells and pretty much anything. However, after reading all the scholarly work, I wondered why nobody had used bio-sensors to develop a pregnancy-like urine test for diagnosing different types of cancer.

Curious about this large gap in research, I contacted faculty at local colleges about how I could help explore this research problem. I soon realized that most labs in my hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, did not have spots for high school students. Even if they did, they wouldn’t let a high school student research that freely. Having this idea but no resources, I was left disappointed.

But then, I wondered if researchers from other cities would respond if I told them about the idea I had. Sure, I had no personal contacts, but after browsing through tons of articles online, I realized that there were a number of researchers who freely listed their contact information. So very much on a whim, I emailed to dozens of professors a proposal to design a simple bio-sensor urine test for cancer diagnosis. I still remember how dumb I felt immediately afterwards.

In the days and weeks to follow, I suffered the apparent stupidity of my decision, as researchers replied to me in the greatest variety of unfavorable ways. Some said no nicely, some ignored my email. Some offered their own critical replies and some simply didn’t understand that I was a high school student when they asked questions like, “What college do you go to?”

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But finally after beginning to regret sending a spam-like message to dozens of investigators, I received an email from a professor of Harvard Medical School who told me that if I sent recommendation letters and my resume I could likely conduct my research idea at her lab. I experienced a range of emotions that day. I was happy because someone said yes. I was curious because I wanted to know more about how this professor was like. And I was anxious because I wondered how my plan to explore this research idea would work out.

However, with the presence of one positive reply, one emotion trumped all: determination. I started to believe that radical approaches, such as emailing researchers throughout the entire United States, could have a positive result that the ordinary person would easily overlook. Because my parents didn’t know until two weeks after I sent the emails — about the entire venture, when I told them, they didn’t exactly react in the way that I hoped.

My mom was frightened by the whole idea of contacting a stranger to go and work in another city. My dad was not fearful. In fact, he thought it would be funny if anybody actually gave me the lab space, which didn’t exactly encourage me, either.

So when I received a positive email from my to-be mentor, I was still somewhat skeptical of whether I’d be able to go and research. Another problem also existed. The professor who’d contacted me was a professor who lived in Boston, 1,000 miles away from my hometown of Montgomery. So to have the idea truly work out not only did I have to gather the permission of my parents to go and work in another city, but also I had to find a place to stay once I got there.

However, over the course of the school year, after convincing my parents it’d be a valuable opportunity finally and after finding a place to stay through distant connections, it all worked out. After school ended I flew to Boston, where I spent the whole summer researching at my mentor’s lab. After eight weeks of onset experimentation in addition to weeks of preliminary research, I designed a prototype device that uses a urine test to accurately quantify cancer presence.

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