Employee Spotlight: Joe Napoli: Biotech Company Hires Somerville High School Student to Aid in Drug Discovery Process

Despite enormous technological advances, cures and effective treatments for Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and many types of cancer remain elusive. A revolutionary biotech company based in Whitehouse, NJ called Visikol aims to change that. Spun out of Rutgers University by PhD graduates Dr. Tom Villani and Dr. Michael Johnson, Visikol is focused on accelerating drug discovery through the use of advanced cell culture models, 3D tissue imaging and digital image analysis. Visikol is working with pharmaceutical companies to help them acquire more accurate data from their drug discovery studies and have developed proprietary image analysis software as well as patented tissue clearing reagents which allow for three-dimensional tissue imaging instead of the traditional 2D slide-based approach that has been used for the last century.

In their pursuit of cutting edge technologies and creative new ideas, Visikol has built a STEM internship program with Somerville High School where students work on the Visikol team on real-world projects. Dr. Tom Villani, Chief Science Officer at Visikol Inc, attributes the internship program to the high caliber of students coming from Somerville High School. “Frankly, I think it’s incredible how capable and dedicated the students I’ve met through this program have been. These kids are already at college-graduate level in some subjects. It’s truly exciting as a resident of NJ, to see how investments in STEM education at NJ schools are paying off.”

In fact, Visikol has hired Joe Napoli, a rising senior at Somerville High School to work on several programming projects, after a successful internship last summer.

“It’s very exciting to see how capable these students are. We have them working on real-world projects, and they come to work with so much passion and curiosity, and eagerness to learn,” says Dr. Michael Johnson, CEO of Visikol and a graduate of Somerville High School. “It’s really rewarding to mentor such excellent students.”

Joe began his work at Visikol with an internship in June of 2017 by creating software which allows researchers to easily and inexpensively visualize their microscopy data in virtual reality using freely available, open-sourced software. This work is currently being submitted for publication so that any researcher can use this free and open source tool. Since becoming an employee, Joe has branched out into several other projects, working to develop software to evaluate the effect of therapeutics on 3D cell culture models. Joe is currently working on further streamlining Visikol’s drug discovery software, designing and implementing a Lab Information Management System (LIMS), and configuring and evaluating the technological infrastructure at Visikol.

Joe got his start in programming early in middle school with the Raspberry Pi, a low-budget computer for hobbyists costing $35 dollars, after Suzanne Updegrove, a teacher at Branchburg Central Middle School, recommended that he look into Python and Linux. He continued to experiment on his own throughout middle school, and after entering high school took advantage of Somerville High’s college-level AP Computer Science A course. He currently takes advantage of Somerville High School’s extensive alternative credit opportunities by gaining school credit for his work experience at Visikol, and by using the concurrent enrollment program in Somerville to pursue a Linear Algebra course at Raritan Valley Community College.           

Michael Johnson