High school coding whiz harnesses artificial intelligence to make medical predictions

Varun Rajaram

When Varun Rajaram was eight years old, he unleashed the power of the Force, challenging friends to epic lightsaber duels and Jedi reenactments.

“I was your classic nerd,” he admits, albeit one with a Jedi’s character: Intelligent, articulate and deeply curious about the world around him.

Now 18, Varun hopes to apply Jedi-like smarts to use artificial intelligence to solve world problems. His latest area of interest: making medical predictions by applying artificial intelligence to anonymous patient data.

Varun, the son of TIer Bharat Rajaram, is one of thirty 2017 Junkins scholars – recipients of a one-time $4,000 scholarship given to children of TIers who are National Merit Scholarship finalists. The scholarship, named in honor of our former CEO, Jerry R. Junkins, is funded by our company in partnership with the National Merit Scholarship Corporation.

Varun is a coding whiz. A five-time “best delegate” in Model United Nations at both the state and regional levels, he plans to attend the University of Texas at Austin this fall to study computer science and participate in the multi-disciplinary Plan II Honors Program.

Globally aware Jedi

Varun credits his parents with instilling a desire to be a socially responsible global citizen.

“I’m fortunate to have traveled a lot with my parents, who of course helped open my eyes to the world around me,” he says. “My mom and dad are both from south India, so I’ve spent quite a bit of time there.

“Over the years I began to visibly see that what was available to me in the U.S. wasn’t available in India. There were big gaps, such as healthcare, and I wanted to do something to narrow those gaps using my interest in computer science.”

True to his inner Jedi, Varun took action and sought an internship last summer at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. He took his coding and programming skills and applied them as a student researcher in radiology to investigate how artificial intelligence can make medical predictions through anonymous patient data.

“There’s a significant amount of work being done with artificial intelligence, but the medical field still has a lot of ground to cover to embrace the potential of this technology,” Varun says. “I wanted to look at how we could use machine learning to index patient data and create intelligent algorithms to make medical predictions. A computer can’t replace a radiologist, for example, but what it can do is look at thousands of images and, using intelligent algorithms to find patterns, then flag an image and say, ‘Hey, something is amiss.’”

In layman’s terms, Varun is describing the ability of artificial intelligence to detect symptoms earlier, helping level the patient care playing field regardless of where the patient lives.

What lies ahead?

Varun is set to graduate in June from William P. Clements High School in Sugar Land, Texas, where he was enrolled in its Global Studies Academy.

When pressed where he thinks he’ll be in 10 years, Varun pauses and acknowledges he’ll always be a nerd, but for now he’s just looking forward to his upcoming college career.

“I’m excited to try new things, explore a little bit, and then figure out the path I want to stick to,” he says. “That said, however, I am looking forward to starting with broader studies in computer science, but then maybe looking at bioinformatics or computational biology,” he says.

Artificial intelligence and predictive algorithms aside, it’s a safe bet that Varun is one to watch in the years to come.