Pre-medical student spearheads bi-continental study examining youth tobacco use

Suraj “Neil” Sheth is a third-year, pre-medical undergraduate student at Loyola University Chicago majoring in Biology and Neuroscience, and minoring in Bioethics and International Studies. He is also a researcher at Magnova Global, a consulting firm based in Chicago, Illinois, and is the creator of the “TripleRM Global Health Model” for Risk, Resilience and Resource Management in the health sector. Neil is a Loyola Ignation Scholar, a Ricci International Research Scholar (International Bi-Continental Comparative Research Award), a Carbon Research Fellow (Genetics Lab Research Award), as well as a Loyola Provost Fellow. He was recently chosen by the President of Loyola University as a Member of the Prestigious Maroon and Gold Society, for Academic Excellence, Leadership, and Service to Others. He is a National Merit Scholar as well as a National AP Scholar, and was awarded the Chicago Tribune 2014 All State Academic Team Scholarship.


Neil is the recipient of the Volunteer Gold Service Award from President Barack Obama for his leadership in the areas of Healthcare, Education and Environmental Sustainability. He has served as the Director of Community Outreach as well as the Assistant Director of the Advocacy and Ethics Committee of the American Medical Student Association (AMSA) at Loyola University Chicago. He is an active volunteer at Lurie Children’s Hospital in downtown Chicago, as well as a volunteer for the Alliance for the Great Lakes. Neil speaks French, as well as fluent Tamil, Gujarati and conversational Hindi (Indian languages). He is currently enjoying learning Italian and will study Mandarin Chinese in the coming months.

Neil, who recently scored in the 99th percentile on the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), and has an almost perfect GPA, aspires to earn an M.D.-Ph.D. degree and become a physician-scientist. He worked at the Center for Brain Science at Harvard University as a summer research intern to aid research on the neural mechanisms underlying motor control and motor learning. As a Carbon Research Fellow, he is conducting genetics research under the guidance of Dr. F. Bryan Pickett at Loyola University Chicago, and is working on a project titled “Analysis of XMN1 and SNAB1 Cis-Regulatory Regions of the RALDH2 Gene”.  He will continue his genetics lab research when he returns to Chicago after the completion of his Ricci Project in Rome, Italy and Beijing, China.

Through the Ricci International Research Scholarship, Neil is conducting a year-long, bi-continental comparative study examining the socio-cultural norms and behaviors that have shaped youth tobacco use in Italy and China. He is studying the importance of utilizing social media in developing targeted, culturally-specific public health campaigns using the latest technologies. He is using the TripleRM Global Health Model, a customizable risk assessment framework that he designed, to analyze his research data. Below is a Q&A with Neil about the goals and model developed for his project.


What is the main focus of your Ricci International Research Project? 

For some time now, as a student of neuroscience, I have been studying the health risks associated with tobacco use, including the addictive neuropharmacological effects of nicotine on the brain. I consider myself very lucky to have won Loyola University Chicago’s premier international research award, the Ricci Scholarship, to conduct a year-long, bi-continental comparative study in Italy and China on the differences in the socio-cultural influences on smoking habits.

Multiple studies show that the younger a person is when they start smoking, the harder it is for them to quit. Through the Ricci Project, I hope to help design measures, such as policy interventions and social media solutions, to facilitate a change in the perceptions and actions of at-risk adolescents. My intent is to integrate technology and medicine in service of the common good. This project allows me to be deeply engaged in solving one of the most pressing medical issues of our time.

Explain the comparative aspect of your research.                   

Italy and China face a common global health problem – smoking – stemming from different root causes, and possibly requiring very different solutions.

Having the opportunity to study a global medical problem, using a multi-faceted approach with both biological and sociological lenses in two distinctive nations is an amazing and rare cross-cultural research experience for an undergraduate student. I consider myself very lucky to have the chance to travel around Italy and China, with their rich, vibrant cultures and histories, and am enjoying this learning experience tremendously. I have had the opportunity to travel to many different regions in Italy and research the historical, cultural, social and legislative landscapes related to tobacco use. I will be involved in similar travel and research in China in the spring of 2017.

I plan to use the data gathered in my research to assess the similarities and differences in challenges facing public health officials in Italy and China, and help define and design customized solutions. Implementing tailored strategic initiatives in individual regions is necessary to make certain that the coming generations in China, Italy, and other countries around the world grow up in smoke-free environments and live longer, healthier lives.


Describe the TripleRM Global Health Model that you are using in your Ricci Project.

The TripleRM Global Health Model (Risk, Resilience, and Resource Management) is a customizable, data driven tool designed for descriptive, predictive and prescriptive analytics. The Model helps in accurate Risk Assessment, in the identification and implementation of Resilience and Remediation Strategies, and in efficient Resource Management. It is designed for use by entities such as the World Health Organization, as well as for effective process management in healthcare organizations. It is also completely customizable to the needs of any organization, anywhere in the world. The TripleRM Global Health Model for the health sector is based on the “TripleRM Strategy Model” originally developed at Magnova Global for Strategic Management.

I originally developed TripleRM Global Health Model at Magnova Global to systematically organize and analyze qualitative and quantitative health research data acquired through primary and secondary research. I utilized the model to study health risks due to vector-borne disease transmission driven by climate change, in order to help build resilient, sustainable cities by designing innovative solutions. I first presented the Model at the Loyola Sustainability Conference in March 2016.

For the Ricci Project, I customized the TripleRM Global Health Model to analyze factors related to smoking prevention and cessation. I have used it to study the problem of smoking through a risk assessment framework, and to identify the optimal practical solutions and remediation strategies, in the context of limited resources. In short, the TripleRM Model has been very useful in understanding the root causes of problems, identifying and quantifying the risks associated with them, designing strategic solutions for health risk mitigation (or risk elimination, if possible), as well as designing the logistics and process management for tactical implementation of solutions, taking into consideration the availability of resources.

What are your project goals and how do you plan to achieve them?

My aim is to conduct deep-dive research to understand the socio-cultural elements related to smoking.  I want to help design targeted public health campaigns using the latest technological advancements, fully customized for individual communities and countries. Apart from the TripleRM Global Health Model, I also plan to use other technological tools such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS), REDCap, and MATLAB for data analysis, to gain a deeper understanding of the problem.

My goal is to find ways to use social media to reach the target audience, mainly teenagers. The underlying goal of creating social media solutions for this problem is to engage adolescents on the platforms they spend the most time on today, and take into account the fact that media-user interactions are now bi-directional, and hence highly influential. Convincing adolescents to make a conscious choice to not smoke requires an updated understanding of their decision-making process. The diverse array of social media outlets that form today’s ever-evolving e-landscape can be fully utilized to help teens and young adults overcome socio-cultural pressures that can lead to harmful behaviors. The intent is to steer them toward decisions that will lead to productive, healthy lifestyles in the long term.

Who are your advisors on this project?

I am very grateful to Loyola University Chicago for funding my Ricci International Research Project. At Loyola, my Ricci Project advisors are Dr. Anthony Cardoza, Dr. James Calcagno, Dr. Anne Wingenter and Dr. Simon Martin in Rome and Dr. Ian Johnson in Beijing. They are closely involved with the project, and have been very generous with their time and advice every step of the way.

Dr. F. Bryan Pickett, my lab mentor at Loyola, is an excellent, supportive, patient teacher who has taught me the research skills that have allowed me to expand my horizons both in the lab and outside of it, and to appreciate the multi-dimensional nature of medicine and health. I look forward to returning to Chicago next year to work in Dr. Pickett’s genetics lab again. I thoroughly enjoy studying molecular and developmental biology, and I hope to combine insights from the lab with my research experience from the field to continue to find innovative, practical and scalable solutions to global health problems.

Dr. James MacKenzie, my mentor at Lurie Children’s Hospital, is a constant source of encouragement and inspiration. He has helped me understand that problems that start in childhood and adolescence can lead to lifelong struggles; hence my determination to help prevent the youth of today from becoming addicted in the first place. This project has helped me fully understand the importance of the medical emphasis on identifying the root causes of an underlying problem, and treating the whole person by examining the biological, psychological, sociological and cultural contexts.

Dr. Richard Hurt, one of the world’s leading experts on nicotine addiction and the Founder of the Nicotine Dependence Center at Mayo Clinic, and Ms. Katie Kemper, Executive Director of Global Bridges, have been very kind and supportive of my project, and have helped me, as a relatively new researcher in field of tobacco dependence treatment, meet and learn from experienced professionals from around the world.

The greatest mentor in my life has always been my mother, Anu Krishnaswamy. She has always been there for me, believed in me, inspired me, advised me and supported me every step of the way. She is kind and generous, and works ceaselessly to help others. A brilliant researcher, she is my role model, and has demonstrated through personal example the importance of undertaking diverse, interdisciplinary work, and the joy and value of constant learning.