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'It’s always important that you can make new opportunities.' Kiran Nazarali graduating from Chestatee with cancer research experience
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Chestatee High's Kiran Nazarali - photo by Scott Rogers

Few high school seniors can include “cancer research” on their college applications, but that’s just one of Kiran Nazarali’s many impressive accomplishments.

The Chestatee High School senior, bound for Georgia Institute of Technology in the fall, said she’s been taking college classes in the dual enrollment program since her ninth grade year and discovered the research program through her college professors. She said a professor in South Carolina, where she used to attend school, opened up the research opportunities to her.

“That kind of exposed me to research and made me very interested in it,” she said, adding that she was deeply invested in summer research programs from then on. “That’s what gave me the opportunity to work on all these different projects.”

Nazarali told The Times she’s learning how to use machine learning on cytokines and chemokines, proteins found in the immune system of deceased and discharged COVID-19 patients. The research aims to create models that predict patient outcome based on a patient’s cytokine and chemokine profile.

She also has experience studying a specific type of colorectal cancer, with research focusing on why certain types of cancers have increased response rates to immunotherapies.

Nazarali has three semesters’ worth of research experience and will continue work on new projects over the summer.

The 18-year-old also serves as a cohort mentor for incoming freshmen at her school, volunteers at monthly community events and volunteers regularly as an early childhood teacher through a program in Norcross.

To balance her time, Nazarali said she wakes up early to complete school work or finishes it at school so she can dive into research meetings, work on a project or teach a class after her school day.

“It’s all about planning your time efficiently,” she said.

Just as it did for others in Nazarali’s graduating class, COVID-19 disrupted the end of her high school career. For example, she said the virus threw a wrench in extracurricular participation and canceled a research opportunity that would have allowed her to travel to Pittsburgh. 

But, she said, the pandemic also helped her realize exactly what she wanted to pursue in a career. 

Nazarali said she discovered her love for computer science, programming and using machine learning tools when her programs had to shift online. She said the change allowed her to work with computational technology she’d never considered before.

“Because everything became virtual, I worked on a project where I could work in my own house and learn a new programming language,” the teen said. “It made me feel that some opportunities haven’t gone away; it’s always important that you can make new opportunities and see things through a new light.”

She added that computer science plays an important role in research, which she hopes to continue, with a focus in computational biology.

Nazarali credits her parents as the driving force and motivation behind her success in school and elsewhere. 

“They’re available 24/7 for me, and they always encourage me,” she said. “Sometimes I think that maybe I’m not able to do it, and maybe I’m a little bit discouraged. They’re the ones who always encourage me and make me believe that I can do anything.”

She called her parents hard working and supportive leaders, who have taught her to never give up and to give back to her community.

It’s not just about having knowledge, Nazarali said, but also to use that knowledge to help others.

When she transitions to classes at Georgia Tech, she said she’ll be starting with 60 to 70 college credits under her belt — that’s the equivalent of about two years toward her bachelor’s degree.

And though she said she’ll miss her teachers and friends at home, she’s excited to get started and see what new challenges and opportunities full-time college student life will bring. Plus, she said, she can always return to Hall with new tools and experiences that will help her make a larger impact on her home community.

“I want to be able to start STEM programs in the area where I live, because I feel like there’s a little less emphasis on STEM than technical careers,” Nazarali said. “So I’d really like to use that knowledge that I’ll gain at Georgia Tech and come back to this community and be able to give back my knowledge and share it.”

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Chestatee High's Kiran Nazarali - photo by Scott Rogers