What is typical for Neeraj Senthil of Sunnyvale, California, is extraordinary.
Between maintaining A+ grades as a biomedical engineering major, earning a provisional patent and co-authoring a research paper at the University of California, Davis, his weekly activities have included cuddling sick babies at the university’s medical center and teaching math at local schools.
Senthil will be awarded the University Medal as the top graduating senior when thousands celebrate earning a bachelor’s degree at five commencements at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento June 16 to 18. He will receive the medal — for excellence in undergraduate studies, outstanding community service, and the promise of future scholarship and contributions to society — and be awarded a Bachelor of Science degree at the 9 a.m. ceremony on Saturday, June 17.
“I try,” he said, with characteristic humility. “It’s an attitude with which I approach a lot of things.”
‘The greatest blessing’
Senthil said his parents, who immigrated from India, gave him “the greatest blessing” of not pushing him in any one direction for his education and career. “They just wanted me to apply myself,” he said. “That’s why I was able to explore so many different paths.”
Senthil, who holds a third-degree black belt in kickboxing, recounted three experiences that influenced his direction: teaching martial arts to children with neurodiversity; leading others as he rose through the ranks of the Boy Scouts to become a junior assistant scoutmaster; and taking rigorous science courses in high school.
‘Curiosity and hard work’
Starting at UC Davis in fall 2019, Senthil sought out research opportunities and was working in the Immuno-modulatory Biomaterials Laboratory by that November. “I found a lab that was prepared to take me with little more than curiosity and hard work,” he said.
Since then, Senthil has continued to work on two main projects in the lab. The first is developing an injectable system to correct the immune imbalance that propagates rheumatoid arthritis. The second is working toward targeted drug therapy by capitalizing on vomocytosis — a process by which a fungal pathogen can escape intact from immune cells without damaging most of them.
“Neeraj’s contributions to my lab have been nothing short of phenomenal,” said Jamal Lewis, an associate professor of biomedical engineering who recently relocated to the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Patent and academic paper
In his independent project for the lab, Senthil developed an image analysis algorithm to more quickly and accurately quantify vomocytosis. He has a provisional patent for this invention, presented it at the 2021 annual meeting of the Biomedical Engineering Society, or BMES, and is first author on a research paper in review with an academic journal.
In his junior year, Senthil became a Goldwater Scholar as a winner of the nation’s premier undergraduate award of its type in the natural sciences, mathematics and engineering.
He also interned at CytomX Therapeutics, a biopharmaceutical company that focuses on novel drug delivery strategies for oncology therapeutics, and Genentech, a leading biotechnology company, both in the San Francisco Bay Area. He earned the Genentech Outstanding Student Award for his work.
As director of research development for the campus chapter of BMES since 2021, Senthil helped more than 50 new students looking for research internship opportunities and organized nine lab tours to expose students to the variety of opportunities on campus.
Other volunteer activities
After more than a year of remote studies due to the pandemic, Senthil said he threw himself into activities with greater human connection. That included teaching.
Courses he took through the CalTeach Mathematics and Science Teaching Program, or CalTeach/MAST, led to teaching internships and then volunteer teaching at Robert E. Willett Elementary School and Oliver Wendell Holmes Junior High School, both in Davis.
“Mentoring and teaching are extremely important to me,” Senthil said. “I’ve been able to receive mentorship, and I feel a strong sense of responsibility to pay that back.”
At the junior high school, teacher Kimiko Yamamoto said Senthil is known for “Neeraj’s Challenge Problem,” which pushes students to apply math concepts they are learning in new ways.
He concluded Pi Week by having 35 students — who he calls the “best seventh graders in the world” — smash 13 pies in his face.
“Neeraj is 100% about helping, encouraging and supporting these amazing seventh graders,” Yamamoto said. “He dedicates so much of his time to promote positive learning, engagement and relationships.”
After working in research and development at a pharmaceutical company, Senthil plans to pursue a career as a pediatric doctor and researcher focused on immunomodulatory therapeutics — those that selectively stimulate or suppress the immune system — to treat various disorders.
To become more familiar with the hospital setting, Senthil has volunteered weekly with the Child Life and Creative Arts Therapy Department at UC Davis Children’s Hospital in Sacramento. There, he supervises playroom activities, provides bedside support for patients in isolation and holds infants when their families cannot be with them.
“He is now able to comfort even the most vulnerable newborn,” said Wendi Imagire, who supervises Senthil. “In this area, Neeraj has excelled.”
Senthil said the variety of activities not only keeps his days interesting, but also serves as an antidote to the frequent failures and dead ends inherent in scientific research. “Having a lot of these activities puts things in perspective,” Senthil said. “It makes me more of a holistic human being.”
In addition to the five undergraduate commencements, UC Davis’ spring graduation season includes seven commencements for graduate and professional students. More information about commencements, including guest speakers and ticket requirements, is available online.