By Kevin Redding
Most teenagers don’t spend their summer developing new scientific methods that have the potential to revolutionize medical care. But Jake Nieto, a senior at Commack High School, is no ordinary teen.
In 2016, Nieto, a then 15-year-old math and science whiz was looking to spend his summer break continuing research he had gleaned in his chemistry and biology classes. He told his Commack science teacher, Richard Kurtz, who connected him with Dr. Prakash Narayan of Uniondale’s Angion Biomedica Corp., a clinical stage organ restoration company that opens its doors to student researchers.
“He was very precocious. His knowledge and abilities were very advanced for someone his age. If I gave him a problem, it would keep him awake at night.”
— Prakash Narayan
In Angion’s labs, Nieto applied his academic strengths — advanced biophysics, statistical analysis, computation — to an in-depth, months-long project on kidney disease. Despite being the youngest person working at Angion, he often worked four days a week from 8 a.m. to sometimes as late as 5 p.m.
“He was very precocious,” said Narayan, the vice president of preclinical research at Angion. “His knowledge and abilities were very advanced for someone his age. If I gave him a problem, it would keep him awake at night. It’s not like if he couldn’t solve it, he’d let it go.”
Nieto said, as with everything in his life, he was driven by genuine curiosity.
“I just found it so interesting that I could take what I learned from school and finally apply it to actual problems,” he said.
Both of Nieto’s scientific research papers based on that summer’s findings were published by PLOS One, a peer-reviewed, open access scientific journal. The first paper, published in October 2016, details a formula he came up with and dubbed the “Nieto-Narayan Formula” — that estimates the volume of cysts found in the kidney of a person with polycystic kidney disease.
In a second paper, published this January, Nieto outlined a better approach to determining the amount of scar tissue in the kidney of someone with chronic kidney disease with the aim to alleviate the use of biopsies — the painful process of injecting a long needle through a patient’s back to examine the kidney scarring. For this project, he modified the commonly used elliptical formula in order to obtain more accurate measurements and volume of a kidney.
“I was so excited,” Nieto said. “It was really awesome and humbling to think that something I worked on could potentially be read by other people who are in the field.”
He and Narayan are confident, down the line, that his research has the potential for clinical study and could become part of normal kidney monitoring.
“Jake’s research really opens up the door for noninvasive characterization of kidney disease,” Narayan said. “I believe it can revolutionize the diagnosis and will greatly reduce very painful kidney biopsies. And, of course, for any 15-year-old to walk to spend the summer in a facility here, when other 15-year-olds are doing whatever they’re doing, and achieve this — I think that’s very remarkable. I’m very proud of him.”
Nieto’s grandfather Ray Ingram, a Queens resident, said he was not in the least bit surprised by this achievement.
“Since he was 4 or 5 years old, Jake was outside looking through a magnifying glass,” Ingram said. “He had a microscope, a telescope, a chemistry set — everything he touched, he took apart and figured out how it worked and figured out a way to improve it.”
At the high school, Nieto is a competitor on the Science Olympiad and mock trial teams. He is president of the Spanish honor society and science honor society, plays trumpet in the marching band, and tutors other students in science and math. While unsure what college he will attend, Nieto knows he wants to study physics and engineering.
When asked if he is ever able to rewire his mind off science, Nieto laughed.
“I try to still have fun and obviously be a normal kid when I’m with my friends,” he said. “But I have my moments where I’ll start looking at something and try to make a scientific connection and be that kind of annoying person. Whenever I see something, I really just want to know why.”