When Nilesh Raval and his friends gather for dinner at the South Quad cafeteria or in someone’s dorm room for a study break, the conversation topics are typical for college sophomores: sports, music, girls, the latest YouTube sensations, girls, classes, video games, and, um, girls.

But for biophysics student Raval, 19, and his friends, the talk also turns to the research projects they are working on.

“It’s cool to talk about what we’re doing and how far we’re getting in our research—among other things,” he says with a laugh.

He found the project by way of LSA’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP), which facilitates research partnerships between first- and second-year students and faculty, research scientists, and staff from across the U-M campus.

“It was one of the main reasons I came to Michigan, to be able to do research when you start as an undergrad,” he says. “For me, a true scientist should do research. In class, you can learn the concepts. But you can’t contribute to the whole scientific community if you don’t produce something or do something yourself.

“I feel like to be able to make a contribution, to do research—that’s a privilege. And I really embrace the opportunity to do that.”

Light micrograph showing the cornea. The cornea is the transparent layer enclosing the anterior sixth of the eye, and consists of epithelium and connective tissue. Corneal tissue may be vulnerable to different types of diseases, a connection that student Nilesh Raval is studying with other scientists at U-M's Kellogg Eye Center.
© Biophoto Associates/Getty Images

Raval says the ophthalmologic project he chose “fascinated” him.

“I never thought you could analyze the eye and tell if someone had a disease or not,” he says. As it turns out, the eye is composed of tissues that are vulnerable to different types of diseases and that can provide clues to the larger goings-on in the body. In a way, the eye is a health barometer.

“[The research project] has so many applications that I was really attracted to it,” Raval says.

Raval spends about 8-10 hours a week in a lab analyzing digital imaging scans of patients’ corneas, taken with a confocal microscope. Raval marks each cell and measures each nerve of the cornea. A computer program tabulates the data, and Raval then analyzes the results.

Last year he studied whether certain characteristics of the cornea could predict a diagnosis of fibromyalgia. This year it is the cornea and diabetes.

“In the end, that’s our goal—if they have this curvature of their nerves, if their cell count is this much lower, if they have this list of parameters, then we can say with a certain amount of confidence that they have fibromyalgia or diabetes or whatever systemic disease is in question,” he says. “I don’t think we’ll ever find an exact, definitive answer, but we have progressed in terms of our knowledge of this relationship between the cornea and systemic diseases.”

He admits it is tough some weeks to squeeze in time at the lab when the homework is piling up and exams are looming.

“It’s my interest in the field that is making me do this, my passion for the project,” he says.

And although he is fascinated by science and research, he mixes in some other subjects. His minor is Spanish, and he is taking a humanities class and one on medical anthropology among his 17 credits.

“I feel like if I took all science courses I’d go out of my mind doing equations all day,” he says. “I think you need the other side of things just to balance it out.”

But science is his true passion, and his work at Kellogg fulfills it.

“It’s the ability to use what I find in research to be able to help the general population, in this case in healthcare,” Raval says. “To be able to use what you discover—that’s what gives me a good feeling inside.”