Jay Iyer credits his boyhood days working with his grandfather in the family garden in Baton Rouge for sparking his love of biology and scientific research.
The old man grew an array of spices, a common practice among traditional Indian households. When he was 4, Iyer began joining grandpa outdoors, learning about plants, birds and microbes.
“I was able to perform experiments on a daily basis,” recalled Iyer, who is now 17 and a senior at Baton Rouge Magnet High School.
That daily immersion in natural science helped lead him to later pursue a career as a neurosurgeon. As part of that career path, Jay plans to do medical research, some of which he's already begun, looking for treatments and cures for rare neurological diseases.
That last part also goes back to his grandfather, who died last year after a grueling bout with a rare neurodegenerative disease known as Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, or PSP. Iyer said that awful experience led him to promise himself that finding cures for such diseases would be his life’s work.
“This is what I’m going to do, and I’m going to do whatever it takes to get there,” he said.
Iyer has already made a lot of progress on fulfilling that promise.
He has taken 15 Advanced Placement courses, earning top scores on all but four of the concluding exams in those classes. His résumé lists more than 50 academic awards and honors just since ninth grade. The summer between ninth and tenth grades, he took the ACT college placement exam for the first and only time. He earned a 35 out 36.
“I was actually very mad after it because I was one question away from a perfect (score),” he said.
Sangita Mathur, a chemistry teacher at Baton Rouge High and a mentor, said Iyer is one of the more exceptional students she’s taught in her 22 years in the classroom.
“He is really smart and intelligent, but he is also very hardworking and focused,” Mathur said. “That is a winning combination.”
Although he rarely leaves the house these days due to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, Iyer remains active.
This summer, he worked as a research assistant on a team of neurological scientists based at UCLA. Iyer’s work centered around Huntington’s Disease, also a neurodegenerative disorder. He pored over large datasets, ultimately identifying more than 2,000 proteins associated with the disease. A paper he wrote on his work was judged as one to five best written presentations at this year’s Research Science Institute, or RSI.
RSI was what allowed him to connect with University of California, Los Angeles, in the first place. Iyer was one of 84 top science students in the world selected to participate in the prestigious summer program.
One of the perks of RSI is connecting with other young scientists in person. COVID-19, however, forced all activities online this year. Iyer nevertheless connected quickly with many newly selected RSI students. In addition to their research, they collaborated on side projects connected with the pandemic.
One initiative was HELM Learning — short for Help Everyone Learn More. The nonprofit is led by students like him, including several RSI members, who were cut off from traditional schooling. Iyer became an instructor at HELM. Since April, he has taught a daily one-hour class called Intro to Microbiology.
Also, with his RSI colleagues, he helped start a website, Findcovidtests.com, that tracks testing centers across the country that offer COVID-19 tests. He said the site grew out of their frustration over finding this information quickly online.
“In the early days, there was nothing,” he recalled.
All this from a family tragedy. Iyer and his grandfather were very close. After all, Iyer’s middle name is Mani, which is his grandfather’s first name. Iyer feels his absence.
“It’s still very raw,” he said.
Iyer’s first-grade science fair project came out of an experiment in grandpa’s garden: Does Coke make seeds grow? He ended up winning first place. Many more science fair projects would follow.
Medical work, and its potential to help others, has been a recurring passion.
In ninth grade, during one of several stints as a student researcher at LSU, Iyer tested various mixtures of viruses known as bacteriophages to try to decontaminate meat infected with the potentially deadly bacteria E. coli. It proved to be a much safer and effective approach, Iyer said, than the traditional practice of spraying meat with sometimes toxic chemicals known as biocides.
In summer 2018, Iyer spent two weeks in Santa Cruz del Quiche, a poverty-stricken city in the hills of Guatemala. He was there as part of a medical relief effort called Agape En Accion Internacional, which he’d learned about through a relative.
Speaking only in Spanish — he had taken Spanish in school — he worked in a makeshift clinic screening for diabetes and providing nutritious meals. He also assisted in surgeries at the local hospital, namely abdominal hysterectomies administered to local women suffering from painful uterine fibroids. Four up to six hours a day, he would hold retractors, provide suction and tie sutures.
The hospital lacked air conditioning, often bringing temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. That upped the stakes for everyone.
“That was an ideal temperature for so many pathogens to grow, so we had to make sure that whatever we were doing was spot on,” he said.
Iyer also traces his fascination with medicine to his beloved cousin Kari, who was diagnosed at the age of 10 with a rare disease called Neurodegeneration with Brain Iron Accumulation, or NBIA, which involves elevated levels of iron in the brain. Kari, now 18, is confined to a wheelchair.
A few years later, it was his grandfather’s turn. The family knew something was wrong when the very active man began falling backward in the garden and complaining of difficulty writing and seeing. In 2016, he was diagnosed with PSP. Only three to six out of every 100,000 people have it.
It was crushing news. PSP has no good treatment and no cure.
The family did what they could to ease his decline; he died in February 2019.
Iyer said the diagnosis “flipped a switch in my mind.”
“Hey I got my cousin here. I got my grandpa here. Two neuro diseases,” he said. “Maybe I should do something in neuro.
“Big pharmaceutical companies don’t see the point of researching very rare neurological diseases because there’s not money to be made from that,” Iyer said.
Last year, he founded a support group in Louisiana called MIND Relief for those with loved ones suffering from PSP and related disorders. It’s the Louisiana chapter of a national support group called CurePSP. The organization grew out of Iyer’s frustration with the dearth of information and help available for PSP compared with better-known illnesses.
He said MIND Relief has connected with about 20 people so far, so meetings have been small, and, since coronavirus, online.
“I try to make sure they have a source of support that they can contact through the entire …,” Iyer pauses. “It’s a long journey, unfortunately.”