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Intellect

Part of the search: A Q & A with the student commencement speaker

David Kastner will represent the graduates as the student speaker at BYU’s Commencement exercises this month. Like many of his fellow graduates, he has accomplished a lot during his time at BYU.

As an honors student majoring in biophysics, Kastner has spent his academic career focused on the study of cancer. During his two years as a research fellow at the BYU Simmons Center for Cancer Research, he engineered several anticancer peptides under the mentorship of BYU professor Steven Castle. Shortly after, he interned at the National Institutes of Health and subsequently at Dana-Farber Harvard Cancer Center where he used cutting-edge biophysical techniques to better understand proteins implicated in cancer. Kastner is currently working at the Huntsman Cancer Institute to understand specific subtypes of lung cancer using genetically engineered mice models.

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Kastner has been accepted to MIT’s bioengineering PhD program and was offered the prestigious MIT Sloan Scholarship. He was also awarded the National Science Foundation Research Fellowship (NSF GRFP), which will fund his graduate studies.

Cancer is personal to Kastner. His brother, who is also graduating this month, is a cancer survivor. In 2016, Kastner finished a permanent public art installation that was inspired by his proximity to cancer. When he isn’t doing cancer research, Kastner loves to draw, paint and sketch. “I love everything about art and think it provides a valuable way to see science and the world,” he said. You can see more of his art on his Instagram page @davidkastner_.

University Communications’ Erica Ostergar recently met with Kastner to discuss his BYU experience and what advice he’d give to other students.

Q: The Honors Program Executive Committee named altruism as a defining characteristic of you and your work. How does altruism play a role in your academic work? Where did that desire to help people come from?

DK: Honestly, I am flattered that they said that about me. Almost all my research and extracurricular activities have revolved around cancer research with the goal of providing a better future for those who have been impacted by the disease. For me, this is a cause that is easy to rally behind because everyone has been impacted by cancer either personally or through a loved one. In my case, although I personally have never had the disease, cancer was very prominent in my childhood. In fact, I have very few childhood memories and yet cancer is present in every single one of them. Luckily, not all the memories are bad. I feel that I owe a debt to the scientists and oncologists of the last decade who worked tirelessly so that our loved ones can have a fighting chance. For that reason, it has always been my goal to provide the same service to another family that a dedicated scientist rendered to mine.

Q: You’ve been able to do a lot of research during your time as a student. Tell us about one or two of the coolest projects you worked on while at BYU.

DK: My projects have evolved through all stages of cancer research, from the atomic all the way to the organismal, and have given me the opportunity to work side-by-side with amazing researchers here at BYU, the Dana-Farber Harvard Cancer Center, the National Institutes of Health, the Simmons Center for Cancer Research and the Huntsman Cancer Institute. However, out of all these projects, my favorites were here at BYU!

My favorite project and also my first, was in the lab of Dr. Castle, a dedicated synthetic organic chemist here at BYU. The project attracted me because it was inspired by a rare class of amino acid found in an anticancer peptide produced by a sea sponge. I was fascinated by the idea of taking nature’s solutions to complex problems and engineering them to overcome our own technological challenges. In very simple terms, if a sea sponge finds it useful, why can’t we? The project resulted in my first publication and since then, it has been almost impossible to pull me away from my research.

Q: You also founded a business! Tell us more about Kahyton Biostructure.

DK: Kahyton Biosciences, named after the species Chiton (pronounced /kahy-ton/) – one of the most ancient and resilient species on earth – is a company I founded to develop and prototype a novel brace idea following a hand surgery. The surgery was the worst. Even after months of therapy, I still struggled to write my own name and had to wear a brace every day. I quickly developed a love-hate relationship with my braces. They saved me a lot of pain, but why were they so ugly and uncomfortable?

So, I got fed up and created a mold and a 3D laser scan of my hand. Next, I developed an algorithm that could generate super strong, lightweight, organic patterns based on the Voronoi structure seen in dragonfly wings and plant vasculature. Finally, I used the models to 3D print a brace that perfectly fit every bone, vein and tendon in my hand. In the end, the brace fit so perfectly that I didn’t even need straps. I decided to name the company after the species Chiton because their amazing exoskeletons allowed them to survive and thrive for half a billion years. Similarly, the whole purpose of Kahyton Biosciences was to create exoskeletons based on patterns seen in nature to help as many people as possible.

Check out the brace design at https://www.kahyton.com/.

Q: Looking back on your BYU experience, what advice would you give to students still pursuing their degrees?

DK: Get involved with research as early as you can! This might sound cliché, and I have heard many reasons not to get involved: I’m too busy, I don’t need publications, or I don’t want to be a professor. Although some reasons are valid, my rationale for early involvement in research is not because of publications. It’s for the mentor–mentee relationship. I honestly believe that if it wasn’t for Dr. Castle and the other amazing professors I’ve worked with, I wouldn’t have accomplished any of the things of which I am most proud. Having someone who believes in you and is willing to push you to find answers to questions that you didn’t even know were questionable was the most valuable part of my education at BYU.

Q: What’s next for you? What are you hoping to do with your BYU education?

DK: The only thing that I know for sure is that I don’t want to leave the cutting-edge of research! With that said, I plan to pick up my research as part of MIT’s bioengineering PhD program. The field of bioengineering is massive, and I haven’t decided on a specific focus yet. Whatever I chose will need to emphasize the use of physics, chemistry and biology to make people healthier and happier. Whether my discoveries in graduate school lead to a company like Kahyton or a faculty position, I’m not sure. However, I do know that I want research and science to be a central part of my life. There are so many amazing things left to be discovered and I want to be a part of the search.