Humans of SymSys: Santosh Murugan

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“I took a piece of paper, and wrote down a list of domains that I thought, if there was to be a major breakthrough, would make future generations of humans live in a far better world.”

Santosh is a SymSys senior and Advising Fellow who helps prospective and current students navigate the major. His office hours are Tuesday 3-4pm, Wednesday 2:00-2:55pm, and Thursday 3-5pm in 460-040A.

What drew you to SymSys? What’s your current concentration?

SymSys deals with the fundamental building blocks of what it means to be human: how we think (neuroscience), how we behave (psychology), how we speak (linguistics), how we augment our capabilities (computer science), and why we do these things (philosophy). After deliberating between concentrating in Artificial Intelligence and Human-Computer Interaction, I chose to pursue HCI first, with the intention of studying AI afterwards (prior to med school).

What’s your favorite SymSys-related class that you’ve taken?

In Spring 2018, I took MED 275: Biodesign Fundamentals to fulfill a requirement in the Human-Computer Interaction concentration. I came into the class with tempered expectations (the medical-device development pathway is notoriously brutal), but was absolutely blown away by the quality of instruction. In that class, I met the eventual co-founder for my biotech startup (read below!), met some incredible medical experts and mentors, and came to really appreciate some of the unique experiences that Stanford offers.

As an AF, What's one piece of advice you'd like to offer to younger students?

One of my favorite athletes, Wayne Gretzky, once said “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”

The truth is, within our lifetimes, the world is going to look a lot different than it does currently. The disruption has already started - think about what Amazon has done to the retail industry, or Tesla to the energy/automotive markets, in the last five years alone. The level of disruption effected by these companies is almost unfathomable.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Both NASA and SpaceX are planning for multi-planetary habitation within the next twenty years. Biotechnologies like CRISPR and CAR-T are literally pushing the boundaries of science and human health. Artificial Intelligence (AI) has the potential to improve nearly every industry you can think of. I was in China last month, and saw literally hundreds of posters for AI conferences in street corners and on lamp posts.

I often see younger students struggling to choose what field to go into, and I feel for them- I know what that’s like. I can’t tell you exactly what will work for you, but I can tell you what helped me clarify some of my goals.

Inspired by a speech from a major tech luminary - I took a piece of paper, and wrote down a list of domains that I thought, if there was to be a major breakthrough, would make future generations of humans live in a far better world. Then, I picked the three that seemed most pressing and interesting to me (AI, biotech, and space). Once I had these clear goals (eliminating the paralysis of choice), it became much easier to focus on what was important to me, and to get to work on implementing these visions.

Once you pick your goals, seek advice from mentors, course-correct when necessary, and work diligently. I can’t guarantee that everything will work out, but at least you can rest happily knowing that you’re working to make the world a little brighter for the people around you.

What's something cool you've worked on?

The summer after my freshman year at Stanford, I had the opportunity to work computational genomics/oncology at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Boston. As part of this work, I shadowed in one of the world’s foremost neuro-oncology clinics at Massachusetts General Hospital. In my time at MGH, I met some of the most incredible patients - people whose entire lives had been upended by their cancer diagnosis, and yet remained some of the most incredibly resilient and inspiring people I’ve ever met. Simultaneously, on the research side, I worked with MDs and PhDs (e.g. Scott Carter and Priscilla Brastianos), who had dedicated their lives to give these patients a second chance, by inventing bio-technologies and designing clinical trials to leverage this technology and deliver it directly to patients. In that summer, I became increasingly inspired to build biomedical technologies that could play a huge role in changing people’s lives for the better.

That inspiration continues to this day. After realizing how devastating chemotherapy-induced hair loss can be for cancer patients, I co-founded a biotech startup dedicated to helping cancer patients keep their hair during and after chemotherapy. That startup graduated from Stanford’s Biodesign NEXT (incubator-style) program, and is continuing to make progress as part of the Cardinal Ventures accelerator. Simultaneously, in my work at NASA this past summer, I went heavy into genetic engineering (in this case, for building multiplanetary habitats via genetically engineered microorganisms) - and hope to apply the same fundamental techniques and knowledge to cure genetics-based human medical problems.

What (loosely) SymSys-related topic are you excited about right now?

Artificial Intelligence is pretty tightly-related to SymSys (it’s actually one of the concentrations), but it’s definitely one of the most exciting topics for me, personally. The fundamental improvements we’ve seen in a variety of fields (e.g. in medicine) as a result of machine learning/AI are mind-blowing; and although there are a lot of issues to be resolved, I’m hopeful that we can use AI to augment our problem-solving capabilities as humans, and help improve a lot of lives.

What other groups or activities are you involved with at Stanford?

I’m on the student board for United Students for Veterans’ Health, which is a nonprofit dedicated to improving the quality of life for military veterans in the VA system. These brave people made incredible sacrifices to protect us, and I’m honored to have the opportunity to spend time with them and hear about their life stories. Outside of USVH, I’m also involved with the Office of Community Standards and Organization Conduct Board, and play with Stanford Badminton.