News Release

Class Acts: 2020 Grads Step into the Spotlight

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By Lily Chen

San Diego, Calif., June 4, 2020 -They’ve worked hard, made an impact, inspired their communities, and most of all, they’ve demonstrated incredible resilience in challenging times. Help celebrate the class of 2020’s remarkable achievements by reading their stories of hope as these new alumni create better futures for themselves and the world.

Varun Govil: Undergraduate Expanding the Horizons of Cancer Diagnosis

Major: Bioengineering: Biotechnology

College: Earl Warren College

When Varun Govil was in high school, he became fascinated with biology after learning about the large-scale living systems and how they were all integrated together. In particular, he was interested in cancer mechanisms, especially the Darwinian evolution of tumors, and the research process scientists have utilized in their attempts to defeat cancer. Combining his interests in engineering and the ability to experiment with biological systems in the lab led him to study bioengineering at UC San Diego. Govil was awarded the Irwin Jacobs Scholarship, a full merit-based scholarship for top engineering students, which has opened up other avenues for mentorship and growth as an undergraduate researcher.

Govil was involved with several synthetic biology research projects during his time as undergraduate, including working in the School of Medicine to help develop and patent Epinoma, a blood test to screen for liver cancer. “It’s by far one of the most intriguing ideas that I’ve been fortunate to work on,” he said. “Our discussions with various oncologists and cancer patients highlighted some of the most pressing challenges in cancer diagnostics today, mainly the issue of cost, invasiveness and limited accuracy.” Those discussions were used as a launching point to create a protein that could be applied to blood samples and give off a fluorescent signal that would then be used to assess patient health. Govil led a team of 11 undergraduates as part of an independent research team in the School of Medicine and together, they built a set of unique machine learning algorithms to identify the biomarkers for liver cancer. The algorithms characterized the properties of a nanomaterial for better sensitivity and created a digital platform for patients to monitor their own health. “Looking back, I think our team was really driven by the desire to positively impact others’ lives and the desire to just perform good science,” Govil said.

In 2018, Govil and his team earned a second-place win at the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition earned additional funding to keep developing Epinoma for the appropriate levels of sensitivity. “For me, being a part of this competition was just absolutely incredible,” he said. “It was so exciting to see our vision grow from an initial set of experiments to unfolding into a much more useful technology.”

Govil was also awarded the Strauss Scholarship, a generous $15,000 grant, to develop Verde Lux, a pilot program for low-income and underprivileged San Diego high school students with an emphasis on STEM engagement. Working together with a team, he researched relevant case studies to build a virtual classroom. Their primary focus is providing underrepresented minority students the opportunities to pursue nontraditional research pathways and get them excited about a career in science and engineering. “It’s been really rewarding to be able to share the joy of science and learning with others,” Govil said. “It’s given me a completely different perspective about educational pedagogy.” Verde Lux was recognized by Imperial College’s School of Business QSReimagine Education competition for its innovation in the education space and shortlisted for the Top K12 Project award.

After graduation, Govil will be attending the Masters in Translational Medicine program, a joint program between UC San Francisco and UC Berkeley, where he hopes to continue working on next-generation cancer diagnostics and gain hands-on experience with medtech devices. “I think that we as scientists and researchers should realize the enormous privilege we have been given, to be at the front lines of driving change, and to make the most of that opportunity,” he said.

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Media Contacts

Katherine Connor
Jacobs School of Engineering