How Does It Feel to Win the $250,000 Hertz Fellowship…Plus Two Others?

Editor’s note:  The following article by Dorothy Guerrero appeared in Alcalde, the alumni magazine of UT Austin….

Maybe you’ve had this nightmare: Dressed in a suit and tie, you sit at a table across from two geniuses who are exalted in their field. You’re in a room on the MIT campus in Cambridge, Mass., and the walls are made of glass, so everyone in the hallway can see you sweat. There’s a big stack of paper in the middle of the table and a couple of pens on either side to use if you need to draw a schematic to explain a concept. There is no way to cram for this oral exam because you are not being tested on something you have learned—but on everything you have ever learned.

No? Well it actually happened last March to Ashvin Bashyam, BS ’14, who managed to pass the daunting interview during his senior year at UT and win the Hertz fellowship for graduate education in the applied physical, biological, and engineering sciences. It’s a five-year award, valued at $250,000. He was one of only 15 students in the nation selected for the fellowship and the university’s fourth since 2011.

Bashyam was a researcher in UT’s Ultrasound Imaging and Therapeutics Research Laboratory, where he focused on improving cancer detection through advanced medical imaging. Geoffrey Luke, PhD ’13, who mentored Bashyam in the lab, says he knew he was special right away.

“Any time you are describing something to him,” Luke says, “he’s usually one step ahead. A student like Ashvin doesn’t come around very often.”

The goal of the Hertz interview is for the candidate to prove that he can think creatively and apply what he knows on the fly to unsolved problems. A panel of past winners asks open-ended, hypothetical questions.  Bashyam remembers being stressed out, but for the most part he felt he was doing well—until one question tripped him up.

“Imagine we are in the future of health care,” said one of his interrogators. “Fifteen to 20 years from now, and every disease is managed except for very early stage cancers. Those are still unstoppable until we can see them. So come up with a way for a hospital to screen every patient walking in … Go.”

Bashyam’s first attempt at an answer had something to do with using X-ray and MRI, but the panel interrupted him right away and told him to think more ambitiously.

“I started off recalling what I’d done in lab where we learn how cancer at its somewhat early stages starts to recruit blood vessels and raises the overall temperature in that area,” Bashyam says. “It’s a process called angiogenesis.”

So he threw out a proposal for a kind of imaging technique that looks for increased blood vessel density, or maybe changes in hemoglobin concentration.

“Nope,” they said, cutting him off again, “We’re talking about earlier.”

Good Fellow

That’s when Bashyam had to dig deeper and cast his thoughts wider than he had ever done before. He found himself talking about the immune system, which he says he knows very little about. He talked about inflammation, T-cells, and lymphocytes and then he said if we could somehow track the immune cells’ activity level, we would see it increase in response to cancer.

“I guess I must have said something intelligent,” he remembers, though still with a puzzled look on his face, “because eventually they nodded and we moved on.”

A few weeks after the interview, Bashyam got word that he’d won not just the Hertz, but also the National Science Foundation fellowship and the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate fellowship.

“The Hertz alone is an amazing accomplishment for any individual and their school,” Luke says, “but then to get the other two as well, which are also very competitive … it’s a testament to Ashvin and how well he’s able to perform under pressure.”

This fall, Bashyam will return to the site of his interview to study medical engineering and medical physics as part of the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology. He’s looking forward to being in the middle of such a vibrant health-technology environment, where venture capital firms are supporting major innovations coming out of the program.

One day, he hopes to develop an implantable device that circulates around the body and looks for tumor cells. Anyone with any kind of cancer or risk factors could have one, and that, Bashyam says, would completely change the game.

“That’s a career goal,” he says with a grin.