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Team Cary: Sanjay Natesan

Volunteer Sanjay Natesan discusses his experience working in a lab, insights into his career path, and being inspired by his science hero.

Sanjay Natesan is a volunteer working with Cary scientist Barbara Han. He is a student at John Jay High School and grew up in Dutchess County, NY. Sanjay is helping with data logging and interpretation for Han’s disease ecology research. He is currently focusing on a dataset on Crimean Congo Hemorrhagic Fever from Albania and other Mediterranean countries.

What got you interested in science?

I have an older sister who loves science, and my parents are computer software engineers, so there has always been a lot of science in our house. My parents have always encouraged my sister and I to explore our boundaries. When I was in 5th grade, my sister was about the same age I am now and she became really interested in biology, and at one point interned at Cary. I was fascinated when I looked at what she was working on. I’d look at the datasets and try to find patterns. Over the years, I’ve become particularly fascinated by physics and biology.

What inspired you to work in Barbara Han’s lab?

Last year, I competed at the Dutchess County regional science fair. My project focused on influenza and involved machine learning and programming. At the science fair, I met my sister’s mentor, Dr. Gene Likens. He saw my project and suggested that I speak with a couple people at Cary. Dr. Han’s work with IBM Watson caught my attention. It interested me in part because both my parents work at IBM, so I was comfortable with Watson and Watson Analytics. I asked her for guidance and she invited me to work with her lab.

Sanjay with Barbara Han and Ilya Fishoff
Sanjay with Barbara Han and Ilya Fischhoff. Credit: Pam Freeman.

What were some of your earliest experiences with science?

I’ve been participating in the regional science fair since 5th grade. I started with a project on magnetic levitation. In 6th grade, I undertook a computer programming project. I created an app to help students track their grades and see where they can make improvements. This was the first time I really delved into using computers for a scientific application. I became very attached to this project and I fell in love with what I was doing. I worked nonstop on it. I realized that whatever I decided to do for a career, data analysis would be a part of it.

Who are some of your science heroes?

One person I have begun to appreciate a lot more is Isaac Newton. It seems cliché, but I had to do a project on him as part of my physics class. I researched not only his contributions to science, but his life outside of science as well. I admired his ability to persist when faced with obstacles. To me, no matter what you do in life, that’s an important thing to keep in mind. No matter what hits you, you have to overcome those challenges. He’s definitely someone I look to when I hit a roadblock.

What were you thinking when you first got to Cary?

The first time I visited Cary was when my sister worked here as an intern. I helped her scan books and I remember thinking how quiet it was. When I came for my first day of work years later, it felt like such a different place. Going to my first lab meeting was a little intimidating. I think I understood about 10% of what was being said. I wondered how I’d be able to keep up with people who have PhDs when I haven’t even taken AP Biology. Luckily, I now feel really comfortable asking questions. If I had to sum the environment of our lab in one word, it would be helpful. If I’m unsure of what to do, it’s ok because there are people here to help.

What are you working on now?

I am currently working on a project that focuses on the prevalence of Crimean-Congo Hemorrhagic Fever (CCHF) in southeast Europe, including Albania, Kosovo, and Bulgaria. Under the guidance of Dr. Han and Dr. Fischhoff, I am looking at how factors like geography, population demographics, climate, and access to preventative healthcare influence the onset, spread, and annual recurrence of CCHF in those countries. My goal is to develop a model that can allow us to reliably predict the probability of future CCHF outbreaks to help those communities implement proper mitigation methods.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced while working at Cary?

I’m grateful that Dr. Han made everything go so smoothly in the beginning. I had the chance to talk to her in her office two or three times before I started. I got a real understanding of the flow of the office. Both Dr. Han and Dr. Fischhoff, a postdoc working in our lab, were really attentive and made sure I felt comfortable.

 Sanjay after he presented his TedTalk on the Importance of Compassion
Sanjay after he presented his TedTalk on the Importance of Compassion at the Newburgh Free Academy in Newburgh, New York. Credit: Jayapreetha Natesan

What has been your favorite thing about being in the lab?

My favorite thing about the lab is that it’s not large and bustling. It’s comprised of myself, Dr. Han, and Dr. Fischhoff. It’s very close-knit and I can strike up a conversation easily, which makes asking questions comfortable. I asked Dr. Han and Dr. Fischhoff for my own project, and within a month they gave me a fresh dataset. They basically said, “Here you go, it’s all yours.” That was a huge gift. I feel like I have the agency I need to thrive.

Have you gained clarity as to what you might like to do in the future?

Yes, definitely! When I first came here, I had a minor interest in biology and a major interest in data science. The work I’m doing here is a perfect mix of those topics. I always knew I enjoyed data science, but being here, surrounded by ecologists, my appreciation for biology has grown. This experience has opened my eyes to the beauty of biology. I remember sitting at lunch with Dr. Fischhoff and there was a bug on the table. Normally, I would have tossed it away, but Dr. Fischhoff told me that it was a rare species. I never would have thought of that before.

What do you do when you’re not in school or Cary?

One of my big focuses after science is music. I play an Indian percussion instrument called the Mridangam. If I’m not at Cary or school, I’m probably travelling to New Jersey for a performance. Over my recent break, I travelled to India to perform in two concerts.

I’m also really interested in giving back to my community. I’m on a few youth boards in Dutchess County and I'm the president of the Youth Council in Dutchess. I go to Poughkeepsie once a month and meet with people my age and discuss what’s going on, and what we want to see in the county. I also serve on the County Executive’s Board as a youth member.