Skip to main content

Bala Vinaithirthan

Bala Vinaithirthan

Age: 18
Hometown: Danville, CA

Science: “Prediction of Phenotypic Cancer Drug Response with an Image-Based Dual Convolutional Neural Network”

About Bala

I am a recent graduate of San Ramon Valley High School and have loved the pursuit of science from a young age. Starting in September 2021, I will be pursuing an undergraduate degree at Stanford University. I am planning on studying biology with a bioinformatics focus and am also interested in taking sustainability classes.

In my free time, I play pickup basketball, read history books, and go on walks with my friends.

Skip testimonial carousel

"I am honored to be recognized as a Davidson Fellow amongst many other amazing young scientists. This opportunity is meaningful because it allows me to inspire future young scientists and is especially rewarding because I have long admired the work done by the Davidson Institute in promoting high achievement in the arts and sciences."

Project Description

Cancer is difficult to cure and develop drugs for because it varies heavily from patient to patient. This project learns from known interactions between drugs (using molecular structures) and cancer cell lines (using gene expression profiles) to predict the effectiveness of new combinations of drugs and cancer samples. With this model, currently approved drugs and drug candidates in the pipeline can be tested for estimated effectiveness on cancer cell lines from different tissues (ex: lung cancer drug on skin cancer cell line, HIV drug on brain cancer cell line, ten potential drugs on breast cancer, etc.). The model only requires a gene expression profile and drug structure; thus the project can be used to predict patient responses to various cancer drugs.

Deeper Dive

My project is a cancer drug response model that predicts the effect of a cancer drug on cell lines, xenografts, and patient samples. By learning from known effectiveness data between cancer cell lines and cancer drugs, the model designed can aid with drug repurposing and development efforts. The model also correctly predicted several hundred clinical outcomes, indicates its potential for clinical use. I was inspired to pursue cancer research and target the drug development pipeline because of family members who struggled with cancer and from seeing firsthand the high price of specialized drugs.

This bioinformatics project centered on understanding biological data and manipulating it with computer science and math algorithms. My experience in the wet lab allowed me to conceptualize the project’s framework with relative ease, but I ran into many roadblocks when transitioning to the mathematical and computer science implementation. Starting from a place of limited computer science background, this project proved challenging as I needed to understand very complex algorithms while also building a foundation. This led to several simple errors while writing complex preprocessing code and I remember spending weeks banging my head against the wall trying to understand TensorFlow, a software library for machine learning. Ultimately, this experience proved valuable as I learned how to both delve deep and wide into a subject. Returning to the project’s origins, I focused on this endeavor during the pandemic as an independent project, but my ability to even attempt such a difficult project was only possible due to the support of various mentors. Since freshman year, I have been part of the Burlingame Lab and under the mentorship of Dr. Nancy Phillips, I learned how to critically read scientific papers, conduct strong, replicable research, and view scientific processes from both a molecular level and cell-wide level. And my senior year, Jason Maynard helped me build a project from the ground level and learn about the various validation steps necessary for a biology project. This opportunity was granted by Al Burlingame who allowed me to learn in a professional setting at just fifteen. In high school, Nicholas Jackson, my English teacher, helped me improve as a scientific writer and the San Ramon Valley High School administration under Jason Krolikowski, Ann-Marie Walters, and Kirsten Drake created a flexible schedule to help me pursue research during the school year.

I started this project to improve the drug development pipeline by focusing on the environmental impact, high cost, and long timeframe of drug development. This project has evolved to solve these pain points from multiple perspectives. In regards to drug repurposing the model identified and continues to identify several FDA-approved drugs for repurposing in cancer treatment; these drugs have gone through Phase 1 safety testing allowing for an advanced timeline and lower cost compared to traditional drug development. Similarly, the model can filter through new drug candidates by providing an estimated effectiveness on various cancer cell lines, reducing the environmental footprint and high cost of manually validating the effectiveness of various candidates. After training, the model only requires two pieces of data to estimate effectiveness: a drug structure and gene expression profile. Thus, the model can predict the effectiveness of a cancer drug on patient tissue samples and patient-derived xenografts. Initial results are promising and with more data, this project can help doctors assess the best course of treatment for cancer patients based on their individual gene expression profile, contributing to the dream of personalized medicine.


If you could have dinner with the five most interesting people in the world, living or dead, who would they be?

Matthias Mann (Mass Spec God), DB Cooper, Sal Khan, my great-great-grandmother (to find out about my heritage), and Malala Yousafzai

Would you rather travel back in time to meet your ancestors or to the future to meet your descendants?

Back in time- I have long been curious where my ancestors stood in respect to major historical moments.

There’s a round-trip free shuttle to Mars. The catch: it’ll take one year of your life to go, visit, and come back. Are you in?

Hmm...depends on if there will be WiFi. I would be miserable if I couldn't see the latest news, research, and basketball game scores.

Click image to download high resolution files

In The News

San Francisco – The Davidson Fellows Scholarship Program has announced the 2021 scholarship winners. Among the honorees are Apoorva Panidapu, 16, of San Jose; Bala Vinaithirthan, 18, of Danville; Franklin Wang, 17, of Palo Alto; Adarsh Ambati, 16, of San Jose; and Sean Li, 17, of Danville. Only 20 students across the country to be recognized as scholarship winners each year.

Download the full press release here