Carnegie Mellon University

Integrated Innovation Institute

Engineering + Design + Business

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Alumni Spotlight - Mission: Eradicate Cancer

Shabbir Suterwala (MSSM '11) uses his software engineering skills to advance the fight against cancer.

Shabbir Suterwala joined Atomwise, a preclinical drug discovery company, as a principal scientist in 2019.

"Atomwise is a science company with an AI-first approach to tackling hard drug discovery problems. This means drug discovery + computational chemistry + AI = lots of tough software engineering problems. I am a kid at Disneyland!" Suterwala said.

The career move to Atomwise accomplished two major goals: It fulfilled Suterwala's mission to contribute to the eradication of cancer and, finally, elevated him to "cool" status in the eyes of his 9-year-old son. ("Scientist" has cachet.)

Suterwala's journey to software engineering - and by extension, the Integrated Innovation Institute and Atomwise - was catalyzed by disappointment (fortunately!).

Fifteen-year-old Shabbir was on the brink of epic success, moments away from reaching the final boss on his favorite computer game. And then the game crashed, supplanting his moment of glory with a hexdump, a seemingly nonsensical array of numbers and letters, that signaled "game over."

Suterwala had just been introduced, albeit quite rudely, to the x86 assembly programming language. When he saw that same hexadecimal array on a book cover at a local Pakistani market, he had to read it.

"I used the programming guide to teach myself how to fix my game. Because I didn't understand it, I learned it. I was not good, at first, but then I was able to do pretty simple programming like 'Hello World'. When it became too complex to finish the book, I searched for institutes in my neighborhood that taught programming," Suterwala recalled.

This drive to understand and solve problems has been a constant theme throughout Suterwala's life. It propelled him to enroll in the part-time M.S. in Software Management degree program while working full-time at Cisco, to take a paid leave to further hone his technical acumen, and now to pursue a Master's Degree in Data Science while, again, working full-time.

At Cisco, Suterwala worked on the team that developed the IOS operating system, which was developed in the 1980s and was, in 2009, still driving a revenue worth billions of dollars for the company.

"I knew I could develop software of complexity like IOS, however I had no idea how to generate revenue -- and billions at that! I looked at MBA programs, however I felt that they were not focused on software engineering as a discipline. The MSSM program closed the gap for me. It is an MBA for software engineers," Suterwala said.

Suterwala's revenue-generating ambition, though, was soon replaced by a more purposeful, impactful, and personal goal.

"During my time at CMU, my mom was diagnosed and subsequently treated for cancer. Several things in her treatment that I naively thought should have been simple were not. This experience, and hearing similar stories from other people, compelled me to make it my mission to eradicate the disease of cancer," Suterwala said. "The next step was to go closer to the problem in order to understand it better."

Suterwala left Cisco for Infor, taking a role that used similar routing and switching techniques as Cisco but applied them instead to integration engine software for healthcare systems. Suterwala mastered healthcare data collection and aggregation methods there and targeted big data as the next step.

He moved to Syapse due to its focus on oncology treatment and built out its Apollo platform, which was instrumental in positioning the company from workflow apps to precision medicine data insights.

"Using software engineering skills, I am able to make users' lives better by building useful products for them. Tactically it means developing specific products, however on a broader scale, strategically, it means reducing the complexity that is inherent in their domain," Suterwala said.

"The MSSM degree set me up for where I'm at today. I mean, at Cisco, I thought I knew everything. I learned at CMU how much there is to learn and how to ask the right type of questions. To be humbled and to know that you can still do something if you don't know it," Suterwala said. "So even though I didn't know anything about drug discovery, I knew that it would get me closer to my mission."

Now a senior manager at Atomwise, Suterwala and his team partner with cheminformatics scientists to explore, develop, and productize various computational chemistry methods to help scientists execute hit identification, hit to lead, and lead optimization processes.

They develop the software and infrastructure to run large-scale deep learning methods that screen compound libraries (containing billions, and most recently, trillions of compounds) for valid hits. 

This virtual high throughput screening (VHTS) identifies molecules ("hits") that will bind to drug targets, which accelerates the time it takes to develop potential drug candidates. Forty percent of Atomwise's projects are for oncological targets.

"We are solving hard challenges that very few have been able to tackle. We have proved that our technology works by collaborating with external partners, and now we are scaling up and building our own internal portfolio," Suterwala said.

Suterwala's Life Outside Work: Family + the Outdoors + Scouts

"I love being outdoors: hiking and camping with my wife and our 9-year-old son."

Suterwala, his wife, and son on a hiking trip with rocky mountains behind them
Suterwala's son with a scooter at a campsite
Suterwala Hiking

"I am a den leader for a local cub scout pack that our son is part of."

Suterwala poses with cub scout around food drive donations
Suterwala builds a wooden plane during a Cub Scouts meeting
Suterwala instructs how to build a wooden drawer

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