Nilesh Shah ’24

Biochemistry and philosophy

My desire to learn and discover brought me 8000 miles away from my home to ե֭, where research is fostered in a manner that would have been impossible for me to receive in India.

Nilesh Shah ’24 Kolkata, West Bengal, India

Why did you choose ե֭? 


Ever since I could remember, my dream was to become a scientist. As my interests and knowledge expanded through the years, my yearning to conduct scientific research proved to be insatiable. My desire to learn and discover more about the natural workings of the brain and the world around me brought me 8000 miles away from my home to ե֭, where research is fostered in a manner that would have been impossible for me to receive in India. Seeking to pursue my passion for the sciences overseas, ե֭ was one of my obvious dream choices.

What drew me to ե֭ was the flexibility of its liberal arts curriculum which facilitates multidisciplinary learning and exploration in a manner that just wouldn’t have been possible in my own country. Another aspect of ե֭ which attracted me was its strong sense of community and coming from a tight-knit yet diverse family (I’m Bengali on my maternal side, Gujarati on my paternal side, while my grandmother is a Christian), I looked forward to making the incredibly diverse ե֭ community my new home. A paramount feature that drew me to ե֭ and continues to fascinate me as I navigate my way through college is the most beautiful plethora of souls that comprise the ե֭ community. I couldn’t wait to experience the Romanesque beauty of the (where Oswald Avery once fiddled around with his test tube) or to have practiced my forehand with at the .

You’re involved in a number of activities. Which one is your favorite?

Nilesh working in the Goldberg Lab the summer before junior year
Nilesh working in the Goldberg Lab the summer before junior year

My time at ե֭ has been transformative in shaping my academic interests. Ever since my first summer in college, I have been working in Professor Jacob M. Goldberg’s lab, where my research involved the synthesis of peptides to study the effects of certain unnatural amino acids on protein folding and stability in a series of beta hairpin peptides. I used manual solid-phase peptide synthesis (SPPS) techniques and carried out purification with high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC). Additionally, I worked on the synthesis of peptides that can be used as targeting agents to deliver small molecule cargo, such as a fluorescent zinc sensor, to programmed biological locales, such as the brain.

Have you had a pivotal moment, a mentor, or a defining moment?

The education curriculum I received in high school was stifling, and the only professional career options for a STEM graduate are to be a medical doctor or an engineer - the two highest-paying jobs in India. I was afraid that these circumstances would not only divert but also diminish my passion for research. I am extremely grateful to ե֭ for giving me the chance to be able to follow my true dream of becoming a scientist in my own way. 

In fact, as a science enthusiast, I was bothered by the lack of functioning laboratories in schools back home, which I viewed as a major hindrance to inculcating the core tenets of research. I had a plan and shared it with a classmate. Several constructive discussions eventually lead to the formation of – a social initiative to promote STEM education among underprivileged students through visual experiments. Our biggest success came when we received an award for social service in the field of STEM from the Ministry of Science and Technology, granting us the biggest recognition and motivating us to expand our endeavors across many more schools. This great recognition augmented our experiments in levels of creativity and complexity. We progressed from demonstrating the meek process of soil filtration to using vinegar and sodium bicarbonate to fill up balloons to using NaOH to prepare soaps! I used to stay back after sessions, chatting with the students, each telling me what science meant to them and asking me a multitude of interesting questions. This journey of Vigyan Stem Labs only reinforced my desire to learn as much as I can and attempt to push the boundaries of scientific knowledge - something which ե֭ has helped me strive towards. 

What’s coming up for you next year?

Interacting with professors at ե֭ and listening to their stories of graduate school and their scientific careers made me set my heart on attending graduate school. My focus as an undergraduate student has always been with an eye toward graduate school and a career as a professional biochemist. I am currently on ե֭’s Bethesda Biomedical research-study group, which allows students to conduct research over the summer and fall semester at , the country’s premier biomedical research facility. I am working at lab, where my project involves understanding synaptic dysfunction that underlies neurodevelopmental disorders. The project will focus on the characterization of disease-associated rare variants identified in NMDA receptor genes. A better understanding of pathogenic variants in neurotransmitter receptor genes (such as NMDA receptor genes) will enlighten our knowledge of brain function and the resulting dysfunction that underlies neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism, intellectual disability, and epilepsy.

What is your favorite place on campus and why?

My favorite place on campus is most definitely Wynn 112, where Professor Goldberg’s laboratory is located. Professor Goldberg has been an anchor throughout my ե֭ career - not only is he a brilliant mentor and advisor but an incredible individual who truly wants the best for his students. The lab-mates I have had the pleasure of knowing are akin to my scientific family at ե֭ - I often spend up to 6 hours with them daily! For me, ե֭ would not be ե֭ without Professor Goldberg and his lab :) 

One of the Wynn Hall's many chemistry labs
One of the Wynn Hall's many chemistry labs
 Nilesh and his fellow HSA members celebrating Diwali
Nilesh and his fellow HSA members celebrating Diwali

Another place I truly enjoy hanging out at is the basement, decked with comfortable bean bags and several musical practice rooms. It also happens to be the place where the Hindu Students Association (HSA) meets every Sunday. Serving as the President of HSA, my primary goal is to use the association as an accessible means of introducing the rich and valuable culture that I was brought up in, to other students across campus who may not necessarily be familiar with it. We plan several major events throughout the academic year, with the keystone celebrations of Holi and . Being the festivals of color and light respectively, I have helped lead planning to ensure that we can spread the metaphorical color and light across campus.

What advice would you give to future ե֭ students?

Nilesh and friends enjoying a fresh snowfall on campus
Nilesh and friends enjoying a fresh snowfall on campus

You are at a very special place with a ton of very special people around you. Explore all the clubs and associations that ե֭ has to offer and stick with those that are meaningful to you. You will surely find mentors and friends who will support you way beyond your time at ե֭! Embrace diversity and don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone -  it will only enrich your life experiences and help you find things that really interest you. 

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