Boundless curiosity and deeply rooted motivation inspired a groundbreaking medical
device and served as a springboard to a career in medicine for Niyant Vora ’19.
Story by Matt Wing
Ask Niyant Vora ’19 what he’s working on and you may have to answer a question first.
How much time do you have?
The recent Illinois Wesleyan graduate spent the past four years on campus immersed
in wide-ranging studies and activities. Biology labs in CNS. German classes in State
Farm Hall. Evenings at the Mark Evans Observatory. Weekends volunteering at OSF St.
Joseph Medical Center.
Free time? The few remaining moments of the past four years were spent pursuing other
interests. Classical music. Bollywood movies. Karate classes. Harry Potter books.
Playing the ukulele.
Oh, and developing a prototype for a device that could revolutionize sleep study.
And perhaps more.
With the aid of IWU Associate Professor and Chair of Physics Thushara Perera, who
agreed to serve as his adviser, Vora has developed, and continues to refine, a new
system that will allowfor testing of sleep disorders previously undiagnosable by standard studies.
And, in developing the device, he’s discovered a multitude of additional uses extending
far beyond the realm of sleep study. With further refinement, the device could be
capable of performing other electrodiagnostic tests, such as an electrocardiogram,
that rely on the transmission of data through electrodes.
And while the initial aim of the project was to improve study of sleep disorders like
narcolepsy and sleepwalking, Vora’s device could now diagnose maladies ranging from
heart arrhythmia to neuromuscular diseases.
“I didn’t set out intending for it to be like this, but it ended up being much more
than what I had planned on,” Vora said. “That’s kind of the nice thing about researching
new ideas and pursuing projects.
“Sometimes they surprise you and they’re way, way more than what you thought they
could ever be.”
The curiosity that helped spawn Vora’s creation is one of the foremost qualities he
displayed as an Illinois Wesleyan student.
“He was the guy who stayed after class and asked questions about things and tried
to make connections,” Perera said. “One of Niyant’s biology professors said he would
stay and ask a question or two after every class, and they were about things he had
learned in German class or in his physics class. He was trying to make those connections.”
Vora’s thirst for knowledge extended far beyond his declared field of study. A biology
major in IWU’s pre-medicine program, he dabbled in other disciplines, picking and
choosing courses he found most interesting.
Vora chose to attend IWU, in part, for the freedom students have to discover their
interests, and for the type of learning that takes place on the campus of a liberal
“He goes from one thing to the other to the other, purely out of interest,” Perera
said. “He’s a very high-level example of what can happen at a liberal arts college.”
But Vora’s curiosity in the world around him was born long before his arrival at Illinois
He credits his parents for never limiting his persistent questions; rather, they encouraged
his inquisitive nature. They provided him with educational toys, like an electronics
kit. They took him to the library, where he filled his backpack with books on topics
ranging from history to music to science fiction.
Born in India but raised mostly in Bloomington-Normal, Vora also credits his many
teachers for helping shape him. A late talker who did not speak conversationally until
he was two-and-a-half years old, Vora had only started to string together sentences
by the time he entered preschool in India.
And his teachers soon realized most of those sentences ended in questions marks.
“Curiosity is something intrinsic to my very being,” Vora said. “Learning how things
work, or why something happens or doesn’t happen, is what I think life is all about.”
Vora remembers his second-grade teacher indulging his request to study optics shortly
after he received his first pair of eyeglasses. More recently, he was inspired by
IWU Assistant Professor of Biology Tyler Schwend, who assigned Vora and his classmates
a research project with the directive to, “run with it and be as creative as possible,”
“One thing I’ve loved about IWU is that professors have always been open to answering
my questions,” Vora said. “They don’t just dismiss some of my more out-there ideas,
but instead, they help ground them in realistic ideas and ventures that can be pursued
to help eventually answer a larger question.”
Vora’s curiosity in medicine and health was sparked by personal experience.
Early in his life, he lost a young cousin whose cystic fibrosis went misdiagnosed.
His paternal grandfather suffered an array of health issues, including narcolepsy,
before an untimely death.
Vora couldn’t help but wonder if and how they could have received better care.
“I learned that a lot of Niyant’s altruistic motivations come from the death of his
grandfather and the death of his cousin,” Perera said. “That affected him a lot, and
I think that has shaped some of his interests.”
By the time Vora was ready to enroll at Illinois Wesleyan, he had decided to pursue
a career in medicine, in large part to provide better care to patients in situations
similar to those that took the lives of his beloved family members.
“It would have been helpful if we could have known what was actually going on (in
those situations),” Vora said. “So I thought, ‘Let me see if I can do something and
maybe help someone else who might be struggling.’”
He called upon this motivation to initiate his design of an improved sleep study device,
an innovation his late grandfather could have benefitted from.
Vora came to the realization that traditional sleep studies are fundamentally flawed
in their inability to accurately measure a person’s “normal” sleep pattern. Conducting
studies in sleep centers (labs outfitted with beds and medical instrumentation to
conduct studies) would provide skewed results, Vora hypothesized, due to the foreign
environment in which the study was conducted. A clumsy system of wired electrodes only added to the challenge of replicating
one’s normal sleep environment, he reckoned.
Vora asked his classmates, his professors — anyone who would listen — and sought out
professional opinions. They all agreed: sleep studies are flawed.
“That led me down this path that eventually led to me working with Dr. Perera, creating
the electronics behind it, and then eventually crafting this device and beginning
the patent process,” Vora said.
His concept was simple enough: a device that would take readings from a patient and
relay data to a receiver to collect and interpret results.
His idea would allow for an at-home sleep study with minimal interruption of one’s
normal sleep routine. And, in developing the device, he learned it could be used for
much, much more. Vora’s innovation would allow patients to perform complex medical
procedures in the comfort of their own homes with relative ease.
But developing and advancing the device were anything but easy.
“I’ve been working to make this device a reality, and now — despite repeated failures
— I have a working prototype,” Vora wrote in his medical school application letter
last spring. “Through my failures, I’ve learned that achieving my goals requires curiosity,
resilience, and knowing when to get help from others.”
In his final semester at Illinois Wesleyan, Vora decided it was time to pitch his
He applied for Illinois Wesleyan’s Entrepreneurial Fellowship, a $5,000 stipend awarded
biannually to a student developing an entrepreneurial idea, funded by alumnus Mark
Vora’s invention beat out a record number of entries to earn the prize money, which
helped him retain a patent attorney who secured a provisional patent.
The good news kept coming. The next day, he was accepted into medical school. Vora
will attend Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in the fall.
A celebration was in order. “I went to Olive Garden with my family,” Vora said, cracking
a smile. “Then I had spring break to relax.”
But the break was a short, rare pause for Vora. Driven by curiosity, he has been immersed
in wildly varying interests — both in the classroom and out.
And that’s something that could benefit him in his medical career.
“They have started to value that more in doctors and in the field of medicine,” Perera
said. “It can be a cookie-cutter profession, and the medical field has found that
some of the innovators in the field are people who come from varied backgrounds.”
Vora’s varying interests have made it hard to pin down a specific career path. For
now, he is most interested in neurosurgery, having job shadowed local neurosurgeon
Dr. Ann Stroink ’76, who also took a path from Illinois Wesleyan to SIU School of
Yet Vora remains interested in all aspects of medicine and healthcare. He earned research
honors in German for his study of the evolving cultural and linguistic context of
mental illnesses during the 20th century; he also presented at TEDxIWU on how language
affects our understanding of mental illness. He additionally earned research honors
in psychology for his study of synesthesia, a neurological condition in which stimulation
of one sense (e.g. hearing) leads to an automatic, involuntary experience in another
While limiting his scope is a challenge, his motivation doesn’t falter.
His approach to treating patients has been shaped largely from his experience volunteering
at a local hospital — where his tasks were as varied as his interests — as well as
those early life experiences, when advanced healthcare may have made a difference.
“My best self demands empathy toward others but also asks for something more,” Vora
wrote in the conclusion to his med school application letter. “It asks me to take
what I have learned from academia, volunteering, shadowing, and tutoring, and apply
it all to improving the lives of others, in the best way I can: as a doctor.”