TO HEAR HIM tell it, Krtin Nithiyanandam’s life is a story of coincidences.

The story of how he started playing squash?

“I used to play tennis, and one day it was raining, so they took us to the squash courts instead. And I loved it,” he said.

Through the years, he’d get pretty good at squash, too; soon, he began playing for the Surrey county team, which won the U.K. Junior Intercounty Championships in 2015.

“It’s a really lucky move that I just decided to play squash,” he says, “and it’s just pure luck it happened to rain that one day.”

There. Coincidence.

The story of how he discovered the music of Glass Animals, now one of his favorite bands?

He was at a party and somebody was playing “Agnes.”

There. Coincidence.

And how he came to own a floral print Ted Baker jacket that Shawn Mendes once wore? Also, in his words, a coincidence. I’ve heard him tell the story of that jacket many, many times, but because I love the jacket—and the story—I ask him about it again.

In 2017, Nithiyanandam was named one of Time Magazine’s “Influential Teens of 2017.” He was 17 at the time, and Mendes—who was 19 at the time—also made the list. At a social event that the Magazine put together later that year, Nithiyanandam was able to meet Shawn Mendes.

“He had this really awesome jacket,” he tells me, “and I wanted something like that which I was lucky enough to get.”

Not long after the mixer, Nithiyanandam shot Mendes an email; Mendes, who was planning on throwing the jacket out anyway, sent it to him instead.

The story finishes there. There’s not much else to say, in Krtin’s words at least: he made a list, Shawn Mendes happened to be on that list, and he got a jacket out of it through a “lucky coincidence.”

But to call it a “coincidence” would be a vast understatement: the blurb on Time Magazine’s website explains that Nithiyanandam made the list for his scientific research—a research pedigree that, Time writes, “rivals that of many professional researchers.” When he was just fifteen years old, he developed a new diagnostic test for early stages of Alzheimer’s that won him a prize at the Google Science Fair; last September, he designed the winning project in the U.K. for the Stockholm Junior Water Prize, a bioplastic that used sunlight to purify water. That same year, his research on triple-negative breast cancer earned him the Intermediate stream prize at the Big Bang Fair.

Nithiyanandam gets genuinely excited when he starts talking about his research. It’s been a long week, but he absolutely loves science—I once heard him describe his Chem 31A Midterm as “enjoyable.”

“I’m interested in the Life Sciences in general,” he tells me, sitting up straighter in his chair. “I love the challenge that the life sciences present.”

He then jumps into the story of his Alzheimer’s research. Alzheimer’s, he explains, is a disease which cannot be cured. There are, however, ways of mitigating the effects of the symptoms, and an earlier diagnosis can drastically improve quality of life for patients as the disease progresses.

During his research, he discovered a certain protein which manifested up to a decade before the onset of actual symptoms, as well as an antibody, detectable via MRI scan, which would bind to that protein.

“If you were to get this test to be specific enough and sensitive enough, you have such a huge advantage when it comes to finding ways to cope,” he says, ending the Alzheimer’s story.

You can tell from the way Nithiyanandam tells the story that he’s had a good amount of practice: he doesn’t dumb anything down, but he still manages to explain everything clearly.

One of the RAs walks by our room and waves hello, but Nithiyanandam doesn’t seem to notice. He’ll almost always say hello to anybody in the dorm as they’re walking by, but he also has a preternatural ability to focus—and he’s really, really into his research.

Each of his major projects follows the same general narrative: researchers faced a certain challenge in treating or diagnosing a certain disease, and Nithiyanandam was interested in a possible experimental alternative. After several years of research and outreach, and sometimes many, many rejections—52 different academic institutions rejected his initial Alzheimer’s proposal—he would manage to get a project off the ground and running.

“Oof, yeah, that was an L,” he says. “It was pretty tough, just hearing ‘No, no, no’ from a bunch of different institutions, but I think it toughened me up. Now it’s easier for me to deal with rejection.”

The University of Cambridge and University College London were two of the schools that eventually expressed interest in his work; soon after they wrote back, he was able to get his research up and running.

He doesn’t talk much about the prizes he’s won, though—to find out about those, I had to go on his Wikipedia page; when I asked him what it was like to present at Google’s Science Fair, he told me instead of how traveling to Mountain View gave him the chance to visit Stanford.

“I’m very glad I did,” he says, “There’s a good chance that if i never went to Google and never visited Stanford, I never would have applied here.”

It’s 7:00pm, which means Nithiyanandam has to go because he has club squash practice. He’s played a lot of squash in the five weeks since he’s been on campus: he wasn’t able to play much after he fractured his pelvis his sophomore year of high school, but he’s trying to get back into it.

Nithiyanandam never formally tried out for the club team, though: one night, during the second week of school, he was practicing alone on one of the squash courts at the Arrillaga Family Sports Center. A man approached him asking if he wanted to play a game, and he agreed.

Naturally, Nithiyanandam won. The man then revealed that he was the captain of the men’s club squash team and invited him to come and practice with the team.

If you ask Nithiyanandam personally, though, he’ll probably tell you it was just a coincidence.

 

By: Kyle Wang

Photography by: Janice Shin