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Stars of Stanford Medicine: Engineering biology to solve problems

Akshay Maheshwari is in his fourth year as an MD/PhD student at Stanford. He hopes to create a technological platform for people to engineer biology.

Akshay Maheshwari is a California native in his fourth year as an MD/PhD student at Stanford. He can usually be found on his way to the medical school, computer science department, bioengineering department or his favorite off-campus snack spot. I met up with him at the School of Engineering to learn more.

What drew you to Stanford?

In my second year of medical school, I was studying for board exams, taking a probability theory class in the computer science department, and at the same time, I was a TA for this bioengineering class on systems physiology and design. I could take ideas I was learning in med school, teach them to the undergrads in my class, and somehow relate them back to computer science. That was the exact reason I came to Stanford: ­that interdisciplinary collaboration across engineering, medicine and all the departments.

I also really enjoy living near my family and friends -- I grew up nearby in Saratoga.

How did you get interested in bioengineering?

It was my first exposure to science, actually. Back in high school, I had the opportunity to work with Drew Endy, PhD, who I’m working with now. A research fellow in Drew's lab at the time and my most influential mentor early on reached out to me after seeing my science fair work and hearing about my interest in combining biology and computer science. I was able to work in the lab over the summer and continued on a project part-time for a while after that. The very first day I came to campus, Drew was giving a seminar talk — I was pretty much hooked at that point.

It opened my eyes to the possibilities of bioengineering. We work in a field called ‘synthetic biology,’ which is, ‘How can we engineer biology to have a function that we want?’ As a high schooler, this got me thinking: Can I grow wings on a human, or can I re-design human cells to be resistant to cancer?

What are you working on now?

I’m trying to organize molecules to organize other molecules. I’d like to engineer cells to do what I want, so I need to be able to control how their molecules behave over time. I’m working on this with the ultimate goal of creating a technological platform for doctors, citizens, anyone to engineer biology to solve their own problems.

What is something your colleagues don’t know about you?

Growing up, I was really into video games and anime — I was the president of our anime club in high school. I named one of my science projects I’m most proud of after a character in a video game, and I'm a little embarrassed about it now, but it had a picture of the character and everything. I’m glad it still passed as legitimate science.

What music are you listening to now?

I’ve recently been listening to more classical music. Yiruma has this great song called 'River Flows in You' and I’ve been trying to learn it on the piano. I’m also listening to a few Hindi/English fusion a cappella artists. I was on a cappella team back in college, so I feel connected to the style of music.

What are you reading?

I’m reading Flatland. It’s about a square that lives in a completely two-dimensional world, and he’s being exposed to a one-dimensional world, then three-dimensional, then four. He explores what all that means and how it looks; it’s a really cool way to conceptualize the world and geometry.

Do you have a favorite vacation?

Back in December, I went with a few friends to Japan. I was really into Japanese culture growing up; I learned Japanese and actually went on an internship to Japan in college. After the internship, I was supposed to go travel for a few weeks in Japan, but I got so sick, I had to be flown back home. So this trip, four years later, I was finally able to do and see everything I wanted to. We spent two weeks working our way down the country.

Do you have a role model?

I really look up to my mentor, Drew Endy. The way he unabashedly tackles the biggest problems and creatively reduces them down to their core is really exciting to me.

Stars of Stanford Medicine introduces readers to standout scholars in the School of Medicine.

Previously: Stars of Stanford Medicine: Marrying environmental and human health, Stars of Stanford Medicine: In pursuit of the "Aha!" discoveries and Stars of Stanford Medicine: "Science touches every facet of the human experience"
Photo by Nicoletta Lanese

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