Learn, Explore, and Innovate

Aarthi and Abhi Vijayakumar, 2018 Minnesota NUMATS Keynote Speakers

Hi, I’m Aarthi.

Hi, I’m Abhi.

Aarthi:  Just a few years ago, we were exactly where you are now. I don’t think either of us had any idea where we would go from there—and we’ve taken a lot of unexpected steps to get here today.

Abhi:  You’re all here because you’ve achieved something far beyond what’s expected of you at this age. Whether it’s your success on the ACT, SAT, or EXPLORE test, you all have something to be proud of today. What’s even more important, however, is where you will go from here.

Aarthi:  Abhi and I are twins, but we’ve ended up incompletely different places in our lives. Like many sets of twins who are raised with the same expectations, we both started out doing many of the same things: from activities to sports to academic competitions, and even those same tests through NUMATS. We each had our strengths: Abhi was always a bit more mathematically minded, while I found passion in the arts and other sciences.But each of us also reached a point where something unique sparked our interest in a specific field—which we’ve continued to pursue to this day.

Abhi:  I decided to focus more on computer science.In the modern world, computers are everywhere, seemingly doing everything we can do and more. I wanted to learn the secrets to these magical machines. From elementary school, I decided that I would learn to harness this power to create stunningly brilliant inventions. As I grew older, I learned that even computers had rules, following fundamental laws embedded into their very existences. How were those laws decided? And how did everything I had come to associate with the computer—games, phones, and the Internet—come from such simple rules? The answer, I soon learned, was in math. From the most basic forms of preschool arithmetic, the same math that we had learned with pencil and paper was repeated endlessly inside the hearts of computers. By building up from the most elementary of knowledge, people had made computers do the wondrous things we see today. After coming to this realization, I decided that I, too, would buildup my knowledge of math and computer programming to achieve something extraordinary on the cutting edge of computer science innovation. I first started learning how to program in elementary school, but like most things in elementary school, I was easily distracted from it. In middle school, our school’s technology class gave me another opportunity to delve into these mysteries, and that time, I was well and truly hooked. Throughout middle school, I continued to pursue knowledge of computers and programming, but without any real goal, other than to learn as much as I could. However, when I entered high school and was faced with the drastically increased workload of a high school student, I realized that unless I had something I could apply it to, I wouldn’t be able to spend much time programming. Enter Rhidian Tech. Midway through my freshman year, a senior friend approached me with a proposition: join his tech startup and code an app with him. Finally seeing the opportunity to put my skills to use, I eagerly agreed. For the next few years,I spent my time eagerly learning the ins and outs of the software industry,working with people across the globe to create educational technology. Rhidian Tech was more than just an outlet for my coding. It was a place for me to develop my skills and apply my purely academic knowledge to a real-world scenario. But I didn’t stop there. With my new skills backing me up, I joined a research lab at the U of M, studying one of the most cutting-edge programming techniques: deep learning. Now, I put my skills towards creating new knowledge and pushing the boundaries of the field even further into the future. Around the same time, I got involved in the startup, I also started participating in the Econ Club, going all the way to winning the National and International Competition that year, live on CNBC. Considering that I was very focused on Math and Science until high school, being open to exploring those completely new opportunities in business and economics opened up many more possibilities,very different experiences and learnings, ones that I’d never thought about until then.

Aarthi:  In middle school and high school, I found my passion in biology. Why biology? It’s a fundamental part of everything we do,from breathing to exercising to learning. It’s a cornerstone of everything medicine is based on, and at the same time the reason that every one of you is able to comprehend these words. But it’s also about so much more than what happens; I wanted to, and still want to, know why. Why is the human body capable of regenerating countless types of tissue, allowing it to survive unprecedented conditions? What pathways control the reactions that save us from dangerous situations? Why are each of us able to learn different things at different levels of ease? And what can be done to solve problems that arise from malfunctions of each of these systems?In 7th grade, we had our first life science class, where I’m sure many of you were hooked immediately…  others of you may of have slept through most of the year. I was one of the former, but that wasn’t enough for me. Later that year in Science Olympiad, Abhi and I competed successfully in the Heredity event, which became something of a joke as the twins on the team took on the challenge of genetics. However, it was in high school that the pivotal moment of my interest in biology arose: I started to learn about the brain. I was working with a professor at the U of M, who gave me a challenging puzzle. She handed me 20 human adult brain sections and told me to place them in order, front to back. At first, I was taken completely by surprise; the first time I’d held a human brain was maybe a week before that,and the intricate details of the brain were my only clues. It seemed impossible. But with Dr. Dubinsky’s guidance and plenty of confusing moments along the way, I was able to use the tiny details in each slice to put the whole brain back together. And at the end of that day, as I held a human brain that once contained a person’s entire life and self, I realized that this was what I wanted to spend my own life doing— studying the brain. I ended up, and still am, working towards doing just that. A few months later, I started to work in a neuroscience lab at the U of M. We were working towards understanding how to control gene expression in the brains of diseased mice in order to improve their conditions, which could eventually be translated to humans.During this time, I learned about much more than gene expression: there were countless techniques to observe and details to remember. I learned how to use a machine to cut a brain the size of a quarter into 40-micron thick sections(that’s about 1/20th the thickness of a sheet of paper). And from there, I learned not only how to look at proteins using different chemicals, but how to make them actually glow; different proteins would fluoresce different colors under the special light of a microscope. It was incredible, like nothing I’d ever seen before. This was taking my first experience with the brain section puzzle Dr. Dubinsky presented me with and taking it to the next level; to the real world. Today, I focus on understanding the social effects of Parkinson’s disease in mice with those same techniques. Every day I go into lab, the pathology lies right in front of me. It’s a physical, tangible problem that I can see- right down to every single cell involved. And not “someday,” but today, we’re working on how to solve it. That’s how powerful studying biology can be. Maybe most excitingly of all, I recently worked with a few friends and classmates to do something we thought was impossible. Through a competition called Genes in Space, we hurriedly submitted a biology experiment proposal concerning DNA the night of the deadline. We never expected it to go anywhere,but after being selected as finalists and presenting our ideas at a conference,our experiment was selected to go a little farther than we thought— into space.We had come up with a way to study how DNA repair changes in space, and what this means for astronauts who are at a higher risk of diseases such as cancer. As our mentor Deniz would say, “Ad astra”- to the stars, quite literally this time. Our experiment will launch to the International Space Station in early 2019, and hopefully its long-term effect will be to increase the safety of space travel for astronauts.

Abhi:  I’m sure all of you have at some point asked,“Why do I have to learn this? When am I ever going to use this after school?”The obvious answer is that you might never have to know the parts of a human cell or the shape of the planets’ orbits. However, what most people won’t tell you is that it’s up to you to find out how you can apply that knowledge. Our society is filled with people who’ve learned and forgotten everything that they were taught in school, but the people who rise to the top are those that use the knowledge they’re given to create something new. Don’t just drift through school aimlessly, but don’t race for the finish line either. Take your time,find something that interests you, and explore it. It’s never too young to start creating new knowledge and making discoveries that no one else has made before. Whether it’s writing a book, starting a business, or conducting research in a lab, push yourselves to pursue your dreams. Learn, explore, and innovate.

Aarthi:  A few years ago, we were sitting in the chairs where you are now. A few years from now… we have no idea where we’ll be. But in that short time, we’ve each found our own path and passion. And each of you will do the same. Whether it’s the subject you’ve been working on since you were 5 years old or something radically different you discover when you’re 15 or 25, don’t be afraid to pursue your passion. You are all here for your accomplishments, but those are not what define you. It’s how you channel those accomplishments into passion, hard work, and eagerness for the next step that does. Be proud, but don’t rest on your laurels. And similarly, it’s okay to be disappointed, but accept failures with grace; they’re a necessary part of you growing into your unlimited potential for success in any field you choose. Take all of these things: successes, obstacles, interests, drive and combine them, and you will excel at anything you become passionate about. Each and every one of you has potential. Never stop using it. In the words of Walt Disney, one of the most famous innovators of modern history, “If you can dream it, you can do it.”

Abhi:  We’re very grateful to MCGT and all the event organizers for this opportunity. It’s an honor and privilege to share our experience with all of you. Thank you.