The Brown University junior was recently awarded a Goldwater scholarship for his contributions to research that uses AI technology to improve medical care.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] – For Hossam Zaki, the possibility of the unexpected so deeply inherent to scientific research is what make it so exciting.
“Every single day you do research, there’s no way to know what’s going to happen,” he said. “That’s one of the best things about it – no day is a boring day.”
A junior at Brown concentrating in biology and computer science, Zaki is researching ways that artificial intelligence technology can lead to better medical care. With AI becoming increasingly adept at identifying unusual patterns in anything from patient data to bloodwork to medical imaging, new possibilities abound to improve medical diagnostics, leading to earlier detection and treatment of disease, Zaki said.
“We are on the cusp of a new medical revolution, and I want to be a part of it,” he said.
Zaki first considered the impact that computer learning could have on the field of medicine while taking an introductory computer science course as a first-year biophysics concentrator. “I signed up for fun,” he said. “But once I took the class I realized that I needed to continue with computer science as well as biology – to figure out ways to combine the two.”
The course inspired him to pursue a summer internship at the European Bioinformatics Institute in the United Kingdom. While there, Zaki designed a computer program that digitally superimposes different protein structures, allowing researchers to see how mutations in certain proteins affect their overall structures.
The program was run over 80,000 times in its first year on the institute’s website, and the number continues to rise. “It has been just so cool to see that people are actually using something I built to enhance their research,” he said.
Zaki has also worked at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, where he used AI to identify structural variants in DNA that contribute to tumor development – research that could provide a key to early cancer detection. This summer, Zaki will join a project at Harvard Medical School exploring ways that AI can enhance the ability of doctors to diagnose genetic diseases.
A Rhode Island native, Zaki began his research journey in high school, when he spent a year at a chemistry laboratory at the University of Rhode Island before joining the laboratory of Gary Wessel, a professor of biology at Brown. For the past four years, he has worked under the mentorship of Wessel and Nathalie Oulhen, assistant professor (research) of molecular biology, cellular biology and biochemistry.
“They have been really amazing mentors – forcing me to dig deep and ask very compelling questions based on my data,” he said.
In Spring 2021, Zaki’s research earned national recognition when he was awarded a Goldwater Scholarship, a prestigious national award that supports sophomores and juniors who plan to pursue research careers in the natural sciences, mathematics and engineering.
As a Goldwater Scholar, Zaki will have the opportunity to connect with members of the program’s vast alumni network as he looks ahead to pursuing M.D. / Ph.D. programs next year. “All of these people have done amazing things, and we’re getting to meet them, talk to them, learn about their research, and potentially collaborate with them in the future,” he said.
Being named a Goldwater Scholar has also affirmed his decision to pursue a research career: “Getting this scholarship validates all of this work that I’ve loved every single step of the way,” he said.
Three students win prestigious Goldwater scholarships for excellence in science
Joseph Cavanagh, Thomas Usherwood and Hossam Zaki each received Goldwater scholarships, which support students who plan to pursue research careers in the sciences, mathematics and engineering.