Likhitha Kolla came to William & Mary with no firm idea about where she wanted to concentrate her studies.
“I knew I was good at certain subjects,” she said. “I knew I was good at math. I knew I was interested in biology. So, I started my freshman year doing biology and later added math classes to my schedule.”
Kolla began working her way through the pre-med requirements of a biology major and, at some point, she learned that there was a broad, powerful discipline that melds the natural and the computational sciences.
“I didn’t know that people could have a career in computational biology until I came to William & Mary,” she said.
So, Kolla ’18 went out to declare a second major. CAMS, the interdisciplinary program in computational and applied mathematics and statistics, offers a mathematical biology track that combines nicely with a bio major. It’s just what the doctor ordered for a young scientist who avers “When I found that I could make a career out of computational biology, there wasn’t a second thought.”
Kolla intends to pursue an M.D./Ph.D. in computational and systems biology, combining her interests in medicine and biomathematics. She hopes to spend her time in the future working in both the clinical and the academic worlds.
Kolla is this year’s recipient of William & Mary’s Thomas Jefferson Prize in Natural Philosophy. The award is endowed by the trustees of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation to recognize excellence in the sciences and mathematics in an undergraduate student. It also commemorates Jefferson’s relationship with Professor William Small. The namesake of the William Small Physical Laboratory, Prof. Small was Jefferson’s science and mathematics tutor at William & Mary. The Jefferson Prize is one of the awards traditionally bestowed on Charter Day, which commemorates the founding of the institution in 1693.
Like past recipients of the Thomas Jefferson Prize, Kolla has conducted an extensive amount of research. And like many science majors at William & Mary, she got involved in research early. In her freshman year, she joined the lab of William Buchser, a former visiting assistant professor at William & Mary who now is a member of the Department of Genetics at Washington University in St. Louis.
Buchser was working on a nucleophagy screen. Kolla explained that nucleophagy is the study of the degradation of material in the cell nucleus. An understanding of the workings of nuclear degradation has important implications for future treatments of cancer and other diseases and also can reveal vital information on the actions of various drugs.
Buchser recalled that Kolla had read important papers on immunology and nucleophagy even before she approached him about working in his lab. Once she joined, her productivity was off the charts, he said.
“I told her that I needed someone who was willing to do many hours on a large ‘drug discovery screen.’ That is something that huge drug companies do, but wasn’t really the kind of thing that undergraduates have ever been involved with,” Buchser wrote in an email. “Two years later, Likhitha had taken some 14,000 images of nearly 10 million human renal cancer cells. What?!?! Wow!”
“I think that was the first time I really realized how that little bit that you contribute in your research can have great meaning and value,” she said.
Buchser gives some context to that “great meaning and value” Kolla mentions. He said analysis of the data Kolla helped to generate led to the discovery of a novel compound that affects autophagy.
She is continuing her work with Buchser and the two of them are collaborating on a pair of papers. Kolla is first author on a drug-screen paper and her data is being used in a second paper.
“Her amazing dedication to science continues this senior year, as she works hard with two different mentors to complete a sophisticated senior thesis,” Buchser writes. Buchser is one of those mentors; the second is Chancellor Professor of Biology Lizabeth Allison.
When it comes to her classwork at William & Mary, Kolla cited BIOL 480, Directed Readings in Biology, as particularly valuable.
“It was a 1-credit readings course and we met every Monday morning,” Kolla said. “We read the entire cancer textbook by Robert Weinberg. I’ve always wanted to sit down and read it.. The textbook delved into the unsolved mysteries of cancer biology and gave me new perspectives on how to approach my own research on cancer genomics. ”
Beverly Sher, senior lecturer and William & Mary’s advisor to students seeking to go on to advanced study in the health professions, says the enjoyment of working through Biology of Cancer with Kolla was mutual.
“She’s incredibly bright and curious, and it was a great delight to read about cancer biology with her,” Sher said.
Kolla spent the past summer doing research at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a private biomedical research facility on Long Island. The two-month experience solidified her interest, already rock-solid, in computational biology, specifically genomics and machine learning
“That was the first experience I had doing cancer genomics research,” she said. “I analyzed RNA sequencing data from breast cancer patients to map and quantify the immune landscape across different subtypes. I also used genomic data to build a neural network sequence classifier.”
Kolla packed a lot into her time at William & Mary. She was a member of the 2016 iGEM team, which won a Gold Medal at an international synthetic-biology competition. Chancellor Professor of Biology Margaret Saha, faculty mentor to William & Mary’s iGEM team, says she’s a “huge fan of Likhitha.”
“Brilliant, intensely curious, and intellectually fearless, Likhitha will no doubt become a science superstar! Already working at the forefront of modern science, she has mastered challenging computational approaches to address difficult, unsolved problems in the field of cancer biology,” Saha wrote in an email. “What is most impressive is the breadth of her achievements, ranging from being an integral member of the William and Mary 2016 iGEM team to creatively analyzing large cancer data sets to inspiring more junior students with leadership, vision, and infectious enthusiasm both within the university and the broader community.”
Kolla helped Associate Professor of Biology Oliver Kerscher with his research during her junior year, and her data contributed to a publication on which she is co-author. She leads the William & Mary Biology Club, through which she spearheaded a mentorship program with students from Jamestown and Lafayette high schools.
Kolla notes that she doesn’t spend all of her time in the lab. “I like to make time to do things outside of science,” she said. “I read a lot of books. Currently, I am interested in the medical humanities.”
Kolla said she read — or re-read — many of the books in Literature and Medicine, a 1-credit hour course taught by Robert J. Scholnick, professor of English and American Studies.
“Part of being a physician depends not only on the science of medicine, but also on the art of medicine,” she said. “Dr. Scholnick’s class served as a great platform to discuss a lot of about the art of being a doctor.”
On breaks, she continues her practice of Indian classical dance. “It’s a huge part of who I am, but I just don’t have time for that during the school year,” she said. All of her accomplishments did not prepare her for the notification that she was this year’s Jefferson Prize winner.
“When I got the email, I was really surprised,” she said. “The first thing I did was call my parents. Then I contacted some of my professors.”