Shirish Yasa: Using Advanced Computing to Take the Fight to Cancer

When Shirish Yasa was a 10 year-old kid attending educational summer camps at UNC Charlotte, he walked through the beautiful campus each day dreaming about what it’d be like to be a student at his hometown university.

“I was very familiar with the campus and I really liked walking around when I was doing those camps,” Shirish said. “My parents didn’t go to college in America, so growing up, Charlotte was always the school I identified with, starting with the hoodie I’d wear to school. I really wanted to go here for a while.”

Fast forward to 2024 and Shirish has made that dream a reality. Just days away from graduating with his B.A. in Computer Science in the Bioinformatics concentration with a minor in Biology, Shirish is set to enter medical school this fall, the next step to his yearslong journey toward putting his dual loves of medicine and technology together toward treating cancer patients while creating the next generation of therapeutic tools to treat cancer. 

“Bioinformatics is just a beautiful field,” he said. “It’s very rewarding to be able to add to a field, to learn about science and medicine while being able to think about the future and how I could perhaps change the course of scientific future with my research.”

Aside from the great experiences he had on UNC Charlotte’s campus during his youth, Shirish was inspired to join Niner Nation by the program offerings of the College of Computing and Informatics (CCI), specifically within the Department of Bioinformatics and Genomics.

Two family role models inspired Shirish to pursue his particular academic path: his father, a software engineer, and his grandfather, a doctor.

In his pre-teen years, he was leaning more into the computing side of things after falling in love with coding when he joined his middle school’s programming club. Shirish taught himself to code over the course of middle and high school. He quickly became captivated with the near limitless possibilities of what could be created with just a computer, some code and a little inspiration. “I really liked the way that you can create something from scratch,” he said. “I learned you don’t necessarily need a lot of money, you don’t need advanced scientific knowledge to engineer something.”

Still, that interest in medicine was always in the back of his head, but Shirish couldn’t quite decide during high school if medical school was the right choice for him. But when the COVID-19 pandemic took the world by storm during the March of his senior year, Shirish suddenly had an immense amount of free time to reflect on what he desired to achieve in his life.

“I really wanted to have a direct impact on people’s lives,” he said.

When Shirish learned more about CCI’s rigorous, top-tier bioinformatics program, it sounded like the perfect match for an exciting career path combining both of his passions.

“I liked how you can merge medicine and computer science,” Shirish said. “I wanted to be a doctor but I also really liked computer science, and Charlotte had the unique degree program to help me do that.”

With his ticket to Niner Nation punched, Shirish wanted to begin his studies and start connecting with fellow scholars as soon as possible. That’s why he joined UNC Charlotte’s University Transition Opportunities Program (UTOP), which allowed Shirish and a cohort of fellow students to start taking classes during the summer of 2020 (in a virtual format instead of coming on campus due to the state of the pandemic).

During his junior year, Shirish took a class on bioinformatic sequence analysis with Dr. Daniel Janies, the Carol Grotnes Belk Distinguished Professor of Bioinformatics and Genomics and Co-director of UNC Charlotte’s interdisciplinary Computational Intelligence to Predict Health and Environmental Risks (CIPHER) Center. Shirish was fascinated by the computational methods he learned, including those based on Janies’s research on using advanced computing technology to digitally predict how well two given molecules can “dock,” or combine, with one another, a key concept in the analysis of pathogens and in the development of pharmaceutical treatments.

In this class, Shirish also learned about how Janies and other UNC Charlotte colleagues used molecular docking techniques to accurately predict that the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 would be highly effective at evading neutralizing antibodies. Intrigued, Shirish asked about joining Janies’s lab and was thrilled when he was accepted.

During his first week working with Janies in January 2023, Shirish quickly found himself working on the University’s latest phase of COVID-19 the research conducting digital analysis of the XBB.1.5 SARS-CoV-2 variant to see how antibody response differed from other variants. The first study he worked on was published in April of 2023. A follow-up study on newer SARS-CoV-2 variants BA.2.86 and JN.1 that Shirish led the charge on during his senior year is currently in peer-review for publication later this year. It’s the type of achievement that even a seasoned Ph.D. student would be thrilled to have on their resume, let alone an undergraduate who led the project in question during his busy senior year of college.

When he’s not in the lab or working on classwork, Shirish is an avid UNC Charlotte sports fan — especially the men’s football team — and also loves following NASCAR racing and collecting watches. He’s also been a key member of the Pre-Students of  Osteopathic Medicine Association (Pre-SOMA), serving in a variety of leadership roles including treasurer, vice president and president.

After his medical school journey is complete, Shirish hopes to have a career where he can continue following multiple passions toward the same overarching goal of helping other people. He’s aiming to be a practicing oncologist who works face-to-face with cancer patients in treating their conditions. He also plans to continue pursuing the computerized molecular docking research work he began at UNC Charlotte, either through partnership with a pharmaceutical company or a scientific research organization, toward the goal of developing innovative, personalized cancer treatments and developing new drugs to fight cancer like never before.

“Practicing day-to-day as an oncologist is my primary goal, but I know I’ll need to be on the cutting edge of research to be able to treat my patients in the most effective way possible,” Shirish said.

Looking back, Shirish couldn’t have imagined all of the doors that his UNC Charlotte education and the opportunities it provided would end up opening for him, allowing him to pursue his passions for computer science and medicine toward the goal of bettering and saving lives all while developing his research skills to push the field of bioinformatics forward.

“When I came to school here, I thought I was just going to be a regular kid, get my degree and go off to med school,” Shirish said. “I didn’t expect to get into research to this extent and really change the course of how I want to practice medicine in the future. 

“I’ve gotten so many unique opportunities that I’m very grateful for; it’s been really rewarding.”