When I asked Akira Nishii, an LSA and Engineering junior, how it felt to be named a student of the year, he chuckled. He took some time to compile his thoughts before sharing that it felt good to be recognized for his efforts, but that he would not be where he is today if it was not for other people in his life — the professors and students who helped get him this far.
Nishii wants to build bridges between people and opportunities. Connecting people, both to resources and each other, is his passion.
Nishii’s motivation to build bridges can be traced back, at least in part, to his experiences as an international student from Japan. Like many international students on campus, he faces unique challenges. For instance, as an aspiring physician, he can only apply to certain U.S. medical schools. However, Nishii never wanted his citizenship to be a barrier to him so he got creative and built a bridge by beginning to translate Japanese into English. Now he translates TED Talks, and he guest lectures about audio-visual translation to Asian Languages and Cultures classes. Though it may not help him surmount the application barrier, he sees translation as a way to be proud of his roots while creating new opportunities.
When he started doing research in high school, Nishii treated his work as an intellectual venture. However, his feelings toward medicine and research changed after being diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, an incurable bowel disease.
“Even though being diagnosed with a disease isn’t a fun thing, at the same time, it gave me a new perspective,” he said.
Nishii understands research and development are expensive but also believes patients should not have to pay exuberant prices for treatment. Therefore, he is now interested in pursuing a medical degree and an MBA to bridge the gap between patients and the biomedical industry.
“I think I’m more interested in optimizing health care practices and research, more so than the research itself,” he said.
Nishii’s knack for building bridges is apparent upon examining the connections he has made while creating Perch, a platform that matches undergraduate students with research labs.
“It is very difficult for undergraduates to get into laboratories and so, currently, the primary means to reach professors is email, which can be discouraging to undergraduate students because either professors don’t check their emails or a lot of professors’ lab websites that currently exist are geared towards graduate students,” he said.
To facilitate the process, Perch uses an algorithm to match undergraduates and their skills to labs.
“So this is like LinkedIn meets eHarmony?” I asked.
“Kind of,” he admitted jovially.
Starting next year, the University’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program will be using his platform. Perch is also collaborating with the Chemistry, Biology and Chemical Engineering Departments to create a new research fundamentals classes for students. Nishii expects over 8,000 University students to be using Perch by next year. Perch has also been recognized as one of the top 32 student startups and has received attention from Sanjay Gupta, a prominent neurosurgeon and medical correspondent, and Jeff Arnold, the entrepreneur behind WebMD.
Bridges were even built during our interview as we discussed our shared interest in Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game” and its much-maligned sequel “Ender’s Shadow.”
Nishii is building bridges, between students and professors, between Japan and America, between patients and medicine, and he is just getting started.