Going In A New Direction

Before Keshav Patel ’19 came to Carolina, even before high school, he thought he wanted to become a doctor.

“Since elementary school, science and math were the subjects I enjoyed more,” Patel said. “I was good at them. I’ve always been interested in biology and biological systems.”

When it came time to go to college, he still held that love of science and math, and the dream of a career in medicine. As part of the Chancellor’s Science Scholars Program (CSS) — which supports high-achieving students interested in STEM — he participated in programming the summer before his first semester that expanded his view of academia and medicine, gaining new career aspirations. He thought he would go on from Carolina to an M.D./Ph.D. program and begin the journey to becoming a physician scientist.

He had spent his final two years of high school working in a mathematics lab at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics and in a wet lab at North Carolina Central University.

“I liked the different kind of thinking involved in research,” he said. “It was different than what I was learning inside the classroom.

“It took more than one sitting [to find answers]. It took teamwork and multiple people putting their heads together.”

As soon as Patel stepped foot on campus, he reached out to professors for lab opportunities to bolster his research experience. It was Sam Lai, an associate professor at the Eshelman School of Pharmacy, who noted Patel’s mathematics background and suggested he reach out to Greg Forest, the Grant Dahlstrom Distinguished Professor of Mathematics.

Four years later and with the support of the CSS program, Patel is double majoring in biomedical engineering and mathematics, minoring in chemistry, and completing an honors thesis in applied mathematics.

The CSS program enabled him to nearly “leave no stone left unturned.” He built friendships with his cohort, valuing their diverse perspectives, be it their field of study or their background. He had a group of fellow students he could rely on and join in exploring the program’s and Carolina’s many opportunities. And he had mentors to help keep him on track and to help him reflect on the research he was doing.

“I didn’t know how people were taking [their research] experience and using it four years later,” Patel said. “What goals could I set for myself at the end of each year? CSS — through the coordinators and older students — really helped me set the markers.”

That reflection and guidance ultimately led him down an unexpected path. Instead of including an M.D. in his aspirations, Patel has spent his senior year applying to Ph.D. programs in mathematics. He plans to spend a career in academia, advancing the discipline and beyond, and mentoring future generations of mathematicians.

“It’s funny when I look back to where I was as a first-year [student],” he said. “I didn’t think I would be here.”

The Eshelman Institute for Innovation is made possible by a $100 million gift from Fred Eshelman to accelerate the creation and development of ideas leading to discoveries and transformative changes in education, research and health care. To learn more about the EII’s impact, visit unceii.org/impact.

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