It’s hard to say how Bay Area native Arjun Verma first fell in love with science.
One could say that it was inevitable — after all, his mother was a physician who transitioned into clinical research, and his father is a software engineer. But he traces the initial spark to lessons he learned as a child while spending time with his friendly neighbors.
“One was a retired engineer, and he spent a lot of time with me, digging in the garden for bugs and building model train sets and balsa wood airplanes,” Verma said. “And that was when I really gained a deep appreciation for working with my hands and understanding how things work.”
Today, Verma is a molecular, cell and developmental biology major with a minor in bioinformatics on the cusp of his graduation from UCLA — and his entrance into Harvard Medical School this fall. His goal is to become both a scientist and a cardiothoracic surgeon.
“I’m very interested in surgery and data science, and I hope I can contribute to the melding of the two. Through my volunteering, I’ve learned that I love to interact with patients face-to-face and to be a pillar of support for them as they go through difficult times,” he said. “But I also really enjoy the process of taking the challenges patients face and zooming out to think, ‘What kind of research can be done to solve these issues?’ That’s something I was really exposed to in the CORELAB.”
The Cardiovascular Outcomes Research Laboratories’ principal investigator is Dr. Peyman Benharash, a UCLA Health cardiothoracic surgeon. For many of the research projects that Verma worked on under Benharash, he used data science and machine learning techniques to identify factors that contributed to postoperative complications and prolonged hospital stays. He also developed methods to 3D-print accurate heart models for surgical education.
“I like to do a lot of different things, and my research lab is all computational, so majoring in MCDB was like scratching my itch to learn more about the intricacies of medicine and human biology,” Verma said. “In class, I enjoyed learning about things like DNA repair, metabolism and cancer stem cells; molecular, cell and developmental biology courses have undoubtedly kept my passion alive for the nuanced concepts I’ll definitely encounter in medical school and beyond.”
Some might argue that he’s already made substantial progress in the field. As a student in UCLA’s Undergraduate Research Scholars Program, he delivered one of only 19 podium presentations accepted at the Western Thoracic Surgical Association’s Annual Meeting and published scholarly articles in JAMA Cardiology as well as the Annals of Thoracic Surgery, the latter as the lead author. In addition, he’s the founder and president of TechConnected, a student organization whose members volunteer free graphic design and web development expertise to further social change.
“UCLA has definitely taught me about myself and how to be more resilient. When I was picking where to go to school, everyone said UCLA was too hard for premeds, but I saw it as a challenge,” Verma said. “I love the energy and the people here, the presence of diverse perspectives. This community is something I’ll hold with me forever.”
As he experiences that inevitable blend of excitement and fear any soon-to-be college graduate can relate to, Verma remains proud of all he’s accomplished in the last four years. His parents are too, although getting them to say it out loud is another matter.
“Indian families can be very muted when it comes to praise,” Verma said with a laugh, sharing how after he committed to Harvard and updated his LinkedIn profile accordingly, he had a 30-minute phone call with his parents.
“We were just talking about random stuff, like my week, but after we finished the call and hung up, I saw that I had a new LinkedIn message,” he said. “It was from my dad, and he said, ‘We’re proud of you.’”