Giving back to the community through innovative projects, research

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2021 graduates.When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Nikhil Dave knew he had to do something to help.

Nikhil Dave
Nikhil Dave is a researcher working in the Velazquez Lab at the ASU-Banner Neurodegenerative Diseaese Research Center

As part of his work in the Luminosity Lab at ASU, Dave developed several projects to aid health care workers and prevent the spread of the disease. And those projects have had a significant impact. He not only led the team that won the $1 million XPRIZE Next-Gen Mask Challenge with their fog-free mask design, he also coordinated two programs to address personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages in Arizona.

"We essentially crowdsourced 3D printers across the state and brought them together on a single web-based software platform, which included clinics and medical centers that were experiencing shortages," Dave said. "Healthcare providers would submit their PPE needs, and we would then outsource that production to the 3D printers, get the equipment sterilized and ship them out. We also developed special sterilization systems that would allow people to safely reuse N95 masks since those were in severe shortage. We wanted to help the community and do something to give back."

Graduating with a Bachelor of Science in innovation in society from the School for the Future of Innovation in Society in the College of Global Futures, and a Bachelor of Science in neuroscience from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Dave's research focuses on innovation in life sciences.

Working in the Velazquez Lab at the Biodesign Institute, something he's been doing since high school, Dave is studying Alzheimer’s disease. He recently published a new study that looks at the Rbbp7 protein in the brain and its link to the disease.   

"Alzheimer's is truly such a complicated disease. I describe it as a web of strings, and all the strings are interconnected. When you pull one string, all the other strings come with it, and that's why it's so difficult to treat," Dave said.

With these findings, Dave and his team will continue to elucidate Rbbp7’s role in Alzheimer’s disease and determine its validity as a novel therapeutic target against Alzheimer’s disease, with the hope that one day it can be manipulated to either prevent or treat the disease."

Throughout all this research and projects, Dave has found that interdisciplinary work is needed to solve some of the most pressing issues.

"In my work, there's a drive and desire to work with teams across various disciplines. I realized how valuable it could be to collaborate with people from completely different backgrounds with different perspectives and bring them all together to work toward a single goal. That's how you solve the big problems."

Dave is finishing up a two-year term as a student regent in the Arizona Board of Regents, representing students across the state and advocating for their interests. He is also part of Barrett, The Honors College and plans to graduate in the spring with a Master of Science in biology. After graduation, he wants to start his own companies in life sciences and hopes to work at the intersection of academia and the public and private sectors. He is thankful for the tools and resources he gained at ASU that have helped him succeed and hopes others take advantage of those same opportunities.

"I'm very grateful that I came to ASU. If you're ever on the fence about attending, reach out to someone from the university to learn more. It's a great place; there's nowhere else like it."

Question: Why did you choose ASU?

Answer: I actually wasn't planning on going to ASU. I already had a few years of research experience in neuroscience when I received the Flinn Scholarship in 2018. I was planning to go to another in-state university to study neuroscience, but a couple of days before my decision deadline for the scholarship, I met Mark Naufel at a recruiting event. He's the executive director of Luminosity Lab and told me about the lab and its work. It's an interdisciplinary research and development lab with students across every discipline at ASU. The whole idea is to remove bureaucracy and red tape and just give people the opportunity to innovate and solve challenges they're passionate about. Once I heard about this lab, I knew I had to go to ASU.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: When you come into a new environment or field of study, you don't have any preconceived biases. You have this unique opportunity where you've learned just enough that you don't have to actively think outside the box because there is no box; you haven't built any biases. I've learned the importance of going into new territory that you're naive in and being willing to expand your knowledge in something outside your direct field of study. 

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: I have a few. Mark Naufel showed me this way of thinking about systems as a whole. Ramon Velazquez, the director of the Velazquez Lab and someone I've been working with since I was 14 years old, taught me the importance of doing rigorous and thorough science and life beyond science. I also learned a lot about policy from Rachel Levinson, executive director of National Research Initiatives for ASU. And finally, Sean Dudley. He's the chief research information officer at the Research Technology Office and has been a close mentor for a long time. He has really instilled in me the importance of developing relationships and partnerships with people and organizations, not as a means to an end but rather as a bridge with constant communication in both directions. 

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: There are two things I would want to use that money for, and I think they go hand in hand. Firstly, as a country, our scientific enterprise is not as efficient as it can be. When I think about the drug development pipeline, there are inefficiencies in basic science, applied science on the regulatory side and inefficiencies in how companies take science and turn it into pharmaceutical and medical products. Spending money would have a huge return on investment. By improving the efficiency of that system, it could bring us closer to cures for every disease. Secondly, there are more and more ways to collect biological data on someone's health, whether that's through a Fitbit, genetic testing services or interactions with medical care providers. But all of this information is disjointed and very siloed. Finding effective ways to aggregate that data together would be huge for health research and personalized medicine for patients. It would change how we give care, develop new treatments and think about health. 

Ashley Richards