Maya Ajmera, President & CEO of Society for Science & the Public and Publisher of Science News,
sat down to chat with Divya Nag, who works for Apple in the Health Special Projects section.
Nag is also a member of the Society’s National Leadership Council. We are thrilled to share an
edited summary of the conversation.
You competed in the Intel International Science and
Engineering Fair (ISEF) in 2007 and 2009. How did these
competitions impact your life, and are there any particular
moments that still stand out for you?
I could gush about ISEF for hours on end. It was during ISEF that I
realized I loved science. One moment that is etched in my memory
is walking on the floor for the first time and seeing hundreds of
rows of booths with absolutely brilliant high school students and
these larger-than-life poster boards. I call it my Disneyland — my
happiest place on Earth.
Until that experience, I never thought it was possible for high
school students to do such cutting-edge work. Seeing this incredible
work opened my eyes to opportunities that I should be fighting for.
In 2007, I didn’t place, but when 2009 came around, it was a very
different experience for me. I came in with a completely new level
of confidence and a higher level of science.
What was different? What did you do to open more doors?
I petitioned University of California, Davis, which was the university closest to my high school, to let me conduct research
during the school year. I sent hundreds of e-mails to professors
there to see if anyone would let a high school student work in
their lab. Then, I spent all my time at the lab after school. In those
two years, I published my first peer-reviewed paper. By the time
I got to ISEF in 2009, I had already won because I had shown
myself what was possible.
What was your project about?
My project focused on preventing forest fires, specifically trying
to understand if we could chemically change the composition of
soil to stop forest fires from happening. I was excited and passion-
ate about the earth sciences. 2009 was a time when Sacramento,
which is where I went to high school, had a number of forest fires.
You transitioned from earth science to studying health care at
Stanford University. How did you make that pivot? What led you
to start your companies, Stem Cell Theranostics and StartX Med?
When I came to Stanford, I thought I would major in earth sciences.
But after doing some research into the opportunities that were
available at the time, I felt like I had already explored the earth
science research topics available to me.
Additionally, at that time, there was an air of mystique and
untapped potential, and even danger, around stem cell use. Embryonic stem cell use had been banned and that piqued my interest.
It seemed like a very high risk, very high reward area to research.
It was a huge mental shift for me to think about entering biology,
but I’m driven by the type of impact you can make. Stem cell use
to potentially treat very serious conditions was extremely exciting, and so during the start of my freshman year, I joined Stanford’s
Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine. That lab
work led to the creation of Stem Cell Theranostics, a company that
today provides drug companies with a method to more accurately
predict cardiotoxicity and cardiovascular drug efficacy.
Tell me about StartX Med. What does the company do and
when did you launch?
Start X Med is an interesting story. When Andrew Lee, another student, and I started Stem Cell Theranostics with our professors, we
dropped out of Stanford to work full time. But we realized that we
knew nothing about running a company. All we had was science and
passion and that’s not nearly enough to make a company successful.
That led us to join Stanford’s accelerator program, Stanford
HEALTH SPECIAL PROJEC TS