Siddhu Pachipala ’27 on why politics is a necessary complement to scientific research
The MIT undergraduate explains his path from research on mental health to his desire to transform science into policy.
Siddhu Pachipala ’27 intends to study Course 17 (political science) at MIT. He believes there is a need to become fluent in both the languages of science and politics in order to change the world for the better. He sat down with The Tech to discuss his journey from a psychology researcher to an aspiring politician.
Q: In high school, you participated in the Regeneron Science Talent search. What was your research about?
A: The current systems for the detection and treatment of mental illnesses are premised on a single book: the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). This is a textbook of every psychological illness recognized by the American Psychiatric Association and the symptoms associated with them. The problem is that symptoms don't cleanly map onto problems in the body, so the name of a condition doesn't tell us what's going on.
My research focused on creating an alternative approach to detecting mental illnesses. I used 112 different markers from MRI scans and psychosocial inventories to create a biopsychosocial characterization of an individual rather than a symptom-based one. This biopsychosocial system was hitting 80-90% accuracy in identifying what treatment a patient should take, compared to the current system’s 30-40% accuracy. We're seeing precision medicine in many medical fields but less in psychiatry, so this was a proof of concept that something like this could work.
Q: How did your research shape your current career trajectory?
A: In order to revise the system of detection and treatment, there has to be collaboration between researchers and legislators. The DSM is used because of the way our insurance system is framed. The fact that a psychiatrist can put their finger on a very specific illness affecting a person helps with billing. It's convenient and downstream from the way our healthcare system works. But psychiatric illnesses are much more muddled and amorphous.
I saw two approaches to this issue: scientific and political. Through a scientific lens, we can ask, “What are our methods for testing patients, determining if they are high-risk, and treating them?” Through a political lens, “Are people able to find in-network mental health professionals? Are mental health professionals willing to take insurance?”
If we, scientists, fail to engage with the political, then we risk letting our work sit in a journal. It doesn’t end up shaping the world. It's important to come back to the people who are going to write the bills that change our systems.
Q: How do you think that your time at MIT will help you reach your goals in research and politics?
A: MIT has a legacy of bringing rigor and data to whatever it touches. In terms of political science, there's a lot of great work on understanding when systems work best to capture people's opinions, what government structures are most effective, and how means of activism produce optimal results. We analyze politics through a quantitative lens. At MIT, the “science” in political science isn't undervalued.
In addition, the MIT Science Policy Initiative goes to Washington, D.C. every year to meet with legislators and people working for executive agencies at the intersection of science, technology, and policy. This is where the rubber meets the road in terms of translating scientific data into the text of a bill. I hope to be part of that.