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Akanksha Verma

Volastra Therapeutics

Akanksha Verma’s career has been driven by a desire to problem-solve. After immigrating from India and studying at a STEM-focused high school in New York, she found herself drawn to the analytical powers of computer science, and started her college career with a plan to dive into software development. But she soon found that coding for coding’s sake didn’t scratch her Sherlockian itch. By chance, she stumbled into an open house for bioinformatics, and her fate was sealed.

Now, at Volastra Therapeutics, Verma is applying coding skills — polished while acquiring her Ph.D. in computational biology at Weill Cornell — to the ultimate mystery of metastatic cancer. By using machine learning techniques to measure chromosomal instability in cancer cells — a hallmark of metastatic cancer — Verma’s work, conducted in partnership with Microsoft, aims to identify signals earlier in the process, before cancers migrate. The other part of her work, she said, “is actually identifying those mechanisms that potentially lead to the instability, understanding the genes that lead to the instability, and potentially then developing a project or program to target those.”

It’s a tall order, but Verma is excited about applying her problem-solving mindset to the challenge of drug development. She credits her outlook to her Ph.D. advisor, Olivier Elemento: “The thing that he said, which still today makes me feel better, is ‘Nobody knows everything, and you will never know everything,’” Verma recalled. “‘But that’s the point of the job.’” 

Katie Palmer