Local student competes against six for top science honors

Courtesy of Manan Shah
Manan Shah, Los Altos resident and senior at The Harker School, discusses his research at a Bay Area conference.

Los Altos resident Manan Shah, a senior at The Harker School, is scheduled to compete against six other students with individual science research projects for scholarship money from $10,000 to $100,000 this weekend.

Shah recently earned top individual honors in the Siemens Competition for the region, taking home a $3,000 scholarship for developing a computational model aimed at helping pathologists more rapidly and accurately assess the severity of breast cancer tumor growth and spread. He advanced to the national competition at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Shah said his research was partly inspired by his grandfather, who lives in India and was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

“There were a couple of problems – the diagnosis was subjective and the exam would take quite a long time,” he said of his grandfather’s plight. “In low-income or developing regions, it is difficult to get a proper diagnosis and it’s hard to get screened for early cancer.”

Shah has been researching the topic since the seventh grade, but his award-winning project began with an 18-page paper that launched him into the regional finals.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, not counting some types of skin cancer. It’s estimated that one in eight women and one in 1,000 men in the U.S. will develop breast cancer over the course of their lifetimes.

Automating diagnosis

Shah’s work addressed a difficult technical challenge in the field of breast cancer: the rapid, accurate and automated analysis of breast cancer tissue images. He developed a computational model that reviews the tissue images and can help pathologists assess the severity of a breast cancer tumor’s growth and spread faster and more accurately.

His model could help speed diagnostics, improve the molecular understanding of the growth of breast cancer and determine more appropriate treatments for each patient. Current systems that pathologists use for grading tumors are inefficient, expensive and laborious.

“I created a type of black box that takes input from a biopsy and performs a diagnosis in two seconds,” Shah said. “It automates the entire process and has the additional benefit of providing the intuition on the molecular underpinnings of cancer spread.”

Under the supervision of Dr. Andrew Beck, a professor at Harvard Medical School, and research fellow Dayong Wang, Shah spent the summer working on his project at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

“Manan’s work is the wave of the future and holds the promise of improving breast cancer diagnosis and making it accessible to many more people, especially those living in areas where there is a scarcity of well-trained pathologists,” said competition judge Pawan Sinha, Ph.D., professor of vision and computational neuroscience in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT. “Manan diligently and masterfully applied cutting-edge techniques from machine learning and obtained results that define ‘state of the art.’”

Shah, a budding computer scientist and applied mathematician, said he hopes to become a research scientist, using his knowledge of physics, math and computer science to better predict the behavior of complex systems like cancer development.

“I find science interesting because of its problem-solving nature, certain mathematical complexities and solving problems for real people,” he said. “I find it interesting that the world is governed by principles of science. I enjoy using my theoretical knowledge and applying it to real-world issues.”

Shah has spent the past few weeks preparing his presentation for the upcoming competition. He will be evaluated on his paper, presentation, a question-and-answer session and poster board.

“The competition is nerve-racking, but I am driven by it,” he said. “It’s an incredible opportunity, and I’m extremely grateful to have this chance.”

Local semifinalist

Although Los Altos resident and Menlo School sophomore Arushi Sahai did not make it to the national Siemens Competition, she and her partner received semifinalist honors.

To better understand the evolution of the universe, Sahai researched over the summer how large galaxies have cannibalized smaller galaxies over time.

She then submitted a technical research paper to the Siemens Competition.

More than 3,800 students submitted 1,700 projects, out of which 96, Sahai’s included, were named regional finalists.

Sahai has spent many hours looking at planets, galaxies and nebulae through a telescope, wondering about her place on Earth and in the universe. She said looking through a telescope is like watching time wind back thousands, or even millions, of years.

Sahai and her research partner studied the evolution of galaxies over the span of billions of years, tracing time back to the beginnings of the universe.

She first developed an interest in astronomy in middle school when she visited the Lick Observatory, operated by the University of California, and learned about research in dark matter, dark energy and extrasolar planets. She was immediately drawn to the infinite mysteries of space, she said.

Over the weeks she had to prepare to present to competition judges from Caltech, Sahai read many papers and dove deep into the topic. Answering questions from 12 judges, Sahai said she realized just how much she had learned in a few short months and was grateful for the opportunity.

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