By Cindy Ziervogel
Aakash Jacob has his mind set on the brain. He loves learning about, talking about and for the past three years, doing research all about the brain. Ever since Aakash was 13, he’s had brains on the brain.
“The brain has always fascinated me,” Aakash said. So when he was barely a teen he set out on a mission to learn as much as he could about the complex organ.
“It’s the sole organ that controls practically all of our body’s functions, cognitive thinking, and the very emotions we feel, so to be able to comprehend how it does all this and then and use it towards medical research is mind-blowing.”
Aakash is a junior at Hightower High School, a member of FBISD’s Medical Science Academy and plans to become a Ph.D./M.D. in neurology.
And the inquisitive 16-year-old wasted no time delving into researching the brain. He’s proactively obtained two separate and impressive research internships. The first is at Rice University where he’s been doing research for the past three years and where he recently co-authored a paper published in a professional medical journal.
He’s also conducting research at the Veterans Association Hospital through Baylor College of Medicine’s Neurology Department. Aakash recently became a research student there working on proving the validity of drug tests on stroke patients. He uses 3-D data simulation and modeling techniques under the leadership of Dr. Thomas A. Kent and Dr. Pitchaiah Mandava.
“I wanted to be on the computer side of things. I’m kind of a tech-savvy guy so I also love to work with computers and do computer programming and having the chance to learn 3-D data simulation has been a great opportunity,” Aakash said.
Aakash remarkably has a third internship, this one through a selective FBISD medical internship program where he gets to shadow doctors at MD Anderson Cancer Center in the stem cell transplantation department.
But it’s in Dr. James Tour’s lab at Rice University’s Nanotechnology Depart-ment where Aakash has spent most of his research time. He’s already logged about 1,000 hours of research working on a nanomedicine project, focusing on applications toward drug delivery. The lab is developing carbon materials that are structured at the nano-scale, about 40,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair, for treating conditions such as traumatic brain injury.
Aakash’s work allowed him to co-author, along with some notable physicians and Ph.D.s, a paper featured in the Journal of Neurotrauma. The paper is titled, “Design of Poly(ethylene glycol)-functionalized Hydrophilic Carbon Clusters for Targeted Therapy of Cerebrovascular Dysfunction in Mild Traumatic Brain Injury.”
“I learned a lot, things that many undergraduate students at college have never had exposure to. Just the privilege of being at such highly esteemed research facilities is amazing. Plus the people I work with are brilliant and amazing teachers,” Aakash said.
Aakash knew from the time he attended Rice University’s Nanoscience Discovery Academy when he was 13 and one of the youngest kids selected that he wanted to learn more about nanotechnology and the brain. So he contacted about thirty Rice professors asking them if he could do research in their labs.
Only three responded — and all three turned him down initially, including Dr. Tour at Rice. First he said “no,” then changed it to a “maybe,” and finally said “yes” to allow Aakash the opportunity to do medical related research.
E. Loic Samuel, a third-year Ph.D. student, supervises Aakash’s work at Rice. “He’s pleasant to be around and eager to learn, which is always a good combination. I think it’s a bit unusual to have a high school student working in the lab. I’m more used to seeing students who have already begun their undergraduate studies. I’m not sure how he lined up the position since it was before I got here, but it’s an excellent opportunity for him,” he said.
Aakash gives credit to his dad, Jacob, and his mom, Ira, for being so supportive of both his work and especially his schedule, noting it’s not a typical one for a high school kid, especially for someone who doesn’t yet drive. “My mom drives me all the time; from school, to Rice, to home. And my dad gives me pep talks.”
Besides all the time Aakash devotes to school, homework, working at his three internships, and traveling to and from, he manages to find time for squash, a very physical and demanding indoor sport his dad taught him years ago when he was looking for a partner. Aakash was only 9 years old but quickly picked up the fast moving, high impact game. Six months later he played in his first tournament and has continued to be a tournament player ever since. Aakash recently ranked in top 150 junior players in the world after competing in the 2011 U.S. Junior Squash Open.
Yet Aakash still spends much of his time doing what he loves most and hopes will continue to be his life’s work: studying the brain. In fact, with all of Aakash’s sophisticated research and talk of brains it would be easy to classify him as a… brainiac. But those who know him, like Tana Holmes, FBISD Medical Science Academy Department Head, know he’s much more than that.
“Aakash has been doing research at Rice since he came to Hightower as a freshman,” she said. “He’s a very normal kid who just happens to prefer microscopes to joysticks. He’s a fun, happy, typical teenage boy until he opens his mouth to tell you about brains… then hold on.”