Our SAT and ACT prep teams are not just committed educators and teachers. They are entrepreneurs, scientists, marathon runners, and mountain climbers who are eager to share their experiences, setbacks, and productivity hacks, all with an eye to helping others find their own lifelong joy in learning.
Rachel Zayas, one of our SAT/ACT tutors, exudes confidence and boundless energy the second you meet her. Alongside her work tutoring English and science with Tungsten Prep, she is the founder and CEO of AGED Diagnostics, a genetics company creating tools to detect early-stage liver cancer. We sat down with Rachel to talk all about her company, motivations, and her passion for teaching young people.
Tell us about your company.
AGED Diagnostics is developing diagnostic tools to fight liver cancer. We use computational tools to assess the genomes of cancer patients and determine specific genes that are driving their disease.
Liver cancer is a complex form of cancer with various causes and has a high rate of mortality if not caught early. Through our research, we’ve discovered specific genetic markers that can be used as early “clues” or indicators for the onset of liver cancer. With this knowledge, patients could be diagnosed earlier, potentially significantly improving their prognosis.
We’re so grateful to have funding from the National Science Foundation and a partnership with George Washington University. These relationships have given us access to extensive entrepreneurship and business resources to develop our business model. We also have access to the National Institute of Health databases, which has allowed us to use biomedical and genomic data and the resources our team needs to put easy-to-understand and affordable tools in the hands of doctors.
How’d you get to be a CEO in your 20s?
It’s not like I woke up one day and started a company! It took many years to get here.
During my freshman year of college, I had this terrific class on genetics. I hadn’t yet learned how to be a great student, so I went to ask my genetics professor for her help. She gave me this great book to read (The Origin of Humankind by Richard Leaky, on the evolution of humanity). After reading that book, I became hungry to learn more and dove into the universe of biology. Over time, I developed this habit: Every day, I wake up, and for two hours, I read articles and went through the academic literature, filling in the gaps in my knowledge to ask, “Is there a new or better way to do this?”
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve only been doing that for ten years – reading, understanding, asking questions – and there’s still a long road ahead. We’re two and a half years into our company, and we’re just about to publish our first academic paper. These milestones take time, but being mindful of my company’s long-term goals helps me stay focused on the day-to-day challenges.
What lessons from your own experiences do you share with your students?
I think excellent communication skills are the key to success in just about anything. We talk a lot about “self-advocacy,” but it’s a muscle like any other, and it needs to be built up over time.
I tell my students to speak up in class and talk with their teacher when they don’t understand something. Write down your list of two or three questions and go to your teacher’s office hours. That simple step of knowing what you don’t know, acknowledging your vulnerability, but also having the strength to seek improvement – those are the roots of self-confidence and curiosity.
You’re a big believer in tapping creative potential. How can students do that?
Creativity is not a bolt of lightning. It’s more like an iceberg. All we see is the tip, but the important part is below the surface: all the hard work, grit, and building an intellectual foundation that goes into the Eureka moment. You can’t ask a novel question if you don’t know what the landscape looks like. That’s why I tell my students to read, read, read! And if they don’t like to read, listen to podcasts or Ted Talks, or go to an in-person presentation and talk to the presenter. Then ask yourself these questions: What’s going wrong now, and what could be happening in the future? Creativity lies in recognizing the gaps and failures that could become successes.
I also think students need to seek out things they find scary. I like to share with my students a story from my own senior year of high school when each student was required to complete a year-long project. The only guidelines were to do something you think you couldn’t do. I was sure I couldn’t write a novel, so I wrote one. It was a science-fiction tale of a girl who hits her head in a surfing accident and loses her memory. I honestly think those early questions I asked myself about memory and identity led me to who I am as a scientist. So I tell all my students that to reach your creative potential, shine a light on your weaknesses, be honest with yourself, and self-advocate. In time, these small habits will transform your weaknesses into your greatest strengths!
We want to thank Rachel for speaking with us about her company and how she became the incredible CEO she is today. We love working with her and know that you will adore her as your SAT/ACT tutor!
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