Since 2009, as part of its Alumni Awards celebration, the UMBC Alumni Association names one “Rising Star” recipient each year who exemplifies early career and professional achievement. In the coming weeks, we will spend some time with awardees from the past decade to see where they are now—and how they’ve grown in their fields while maintaining ties to UMBC. In this installment, UMBC Rising Stars Isaac Kinde ’05, M13, biological sciences, and Christopher Valentino ’02, M.S. ’06, information systems, discuss their roles in the healthcare and defense industries, respectively. Both alumni discovered their passion for their work while at UMBC and aim to harness technology to protect us from disease and cyber warfare.
As we embrace life in a technologically immersive world—scrolling out of habit or relying on a life-saving medical device—there’s a common question many of us have about the tech we’ve come to depend on: How can we best harness it to protect us? From malware and scams, but also from disease and unnecessary pain?
Two UMBC graduates, who previously received Rising Star alumni awards, are diligently working to create and influence technology that innovates and protects us.
Protecting lives with early detection technology
Isaac Kinde ’05, M13, biological sciences, is advancing healthcare technologies that work to protect people from possibly fatal diseases. Kinde is co-founder and vice president for technology assessment at Thrive, an Exact Sciences Company. Thrive was recently acquired by Exact Sciences for up to $2.15 billion assuming successful completion of certain milestones, says Kinde. He and his team work to save lives threatened by cancer by creating early detection technologies.
“There’s two million cancer cases in the U.S. annually and 70 percent of those cases don’t have a screening test available,” says Kinde. “If you can find cancers earlier, particularly in the earliest stages, survival can be as high as 90 percent or greater. The technology that my company is developing really leverages decades of research into how cancers work, their biology, as well as method developments in order to exploit that biology.”
Getting an early start
Since being named a Rising Star alum in 2014, Kinde received his M.D.-Ph.D. from the John Hopkins University School of Medicine. He was named one of Forbes magazine’s 30 under 30 “Rising Stars Transforming Science and Health.” Kinde also received The Daily Record’s Innovator of the Year award in 2015.
While at UMBC as a Meyerhoff Scholar, Kinde’s appreciation for research blossomed. He said that his first research mentor, Michael Summers, a professor in the Chemistry and Biochemistry department, influenced his love of research after spending a summer in his lab. “I just got hooked and I just didn’t stop doing research. It was a continuous effort until I graduated,” Kinde recalls.
Kinde speaking at the 2014 Alumni Award ceremony, and pictured with President Hrabowski, Mike Summers, and Kenneth Pittman ’80. All photos courtesy of the Alumni Association, unless otherwise noted.
It was his doctoral work at the Vogelstein Lab at Hopkins that helped to propel the technological initiatives at Thrive. “We set out to apply the latest and greatest technologies to identify cancers in their earliest stages. It took new method creation. We had to develop new technologies in order to find the earliest signs of cancer in routine clinical specimens,” Kinde says.
The future of cancer detection technology
Thus, came about the creation of CancerSEEK, a blood test that has shown the ability to detect 65 percent of cancers prior to clinically evident metastasis in individuals without any history of the disease. Kinde noted that a test like CancerSEEK can detect multiple cancers from a single test and do so in real time.
“There was the prototype version [of CancerSEEK] that our academic lab published. Then there was another prototype version that our company collaborated with Hopkins in order to demonstrate how we could work in a real-world setting,” says Kinde. “It’s the first of its kind to demonstrate real world detection and intervention of cancers. We’re preparing to get FDA approval, to do the full clinical validation of the CancerSEEK test.”
Kinde recalls the moment he saw successful Black Americans who were in the top M.D.-Ph.D. programs and top graduate programs while he studied at UMBC as an influential factor in his career progression. In fact, UMBC undergraduate alumni who identify as African American have gone on to pursue and earn more M.D.-Ph.D.s than alumni from any other institution across the country, largely in thanks to the support from the Meyerhoff Scholars Program.
“To me, that said, ‘well, why can’t I do that too?’ As I’ve progressed in my career, it’s the lesson that I remember. It’s something that I want to help future generations of people by being that example that they can look to.”
Cybersecurity at the highest levels
Christopher Valentino ’02, M.S. ’06, information systems management, has more than two decades of expertise in domestic and global cybersecurity, which began during his undergraduate tenure at UMBC. Valentino spent 24 years working with Northrop Grumman Corp., a global aerospace and defense technology company, and its predecessor companies.
He started working at Northrop as an intern—working in what he called the “cyber mailroom”—and worked his way up. When he received the UMBC Alumni Association’s Rising Star award in 2012, Valentino was the then-director of contract research and development at Northrop.
“I had a parallel experience of working and going to school at the same time,” says Valentino, “while I was also starting a family. There are things I learned at UMBC as a student that I would not have learned anywhere else. The bottom line is UMBC is a really hard school. And it’s very underappreciated until you actually show up and become part of the institution, and go through the rigor that’s there.”
A leader in influencing cyberspace infrastructures
Nearly 10 years since being named a UMBC rising star, Valentino now serves as the chief strategy officer at Peraton, a next-generation national security company that provides technology solutions to space and intelligence, cyber mission, defense and security, and civil and health customers. Peraton acquired Northrop’s IT services business in February 2021 when Valentino transitioned into being the point person for shaping the future of the company.
“Peraton is a national security company focused on providing capabilities and solutions across the Department of Defense intelligence community—federal, civilian, and Homeland Security. I am responsible for operationalizing our strategy across those businesses,” Valentino says.
Valentino’s work emphasizes the importance of cybersecurity protection at the highest levels. While in his role as vice president of information warfare and cyber survivability at Northrop, Valentino shared insight on how some of the most powerful warfare structures in our country, such as the military and aerospace defenses, work to approach information warfare and how they keep our protections secure in the face of international threats on the Defense & Aerospace Report Podcast last June.
“You train as you fight. In this domain, things move fast and things can change. You have to know the right environments to be able to train your mission operators,” Valentino told podcast host Vago Muradian. “From an exercise perspective, you would always go out and train, train, train and then execute. It’s the same thing in information warfare.”
The past, present, and future of tech
In his long tenure in the cyber security field, Valentino is able to appreciate innovative technological protections while understanding that these advancements are interconnected with all the efforts of past researchers.
“The one thing that I can appreciate from being in the industry now for over two decades is that there’s repetition and then there’s innovation in the seams between the repetition,” says Valentino. “There’s a lot of concepts that were new 20-plus years ago that will still be new 20 years from now. Artificial intelligence is probably one that I would point to and say, 20 years ago, we were doing research and trying to apply technologies, and two decades later, we’re still working to operationalize that technology.”
Valentino and Kinde’s efforts have created an impactful ripple effect in our understanding of how technology can protect us from threats. Kinde’s work in early detection technology is on track to save more lives ahead of a cancer diagnosis that can be fatal. One blood test may have the potential to accurately detect a variety of different cancers. Valentino, on the other hand, is continuing to fortify the infrastructure and systems that protects our land, air, space, and digital domains from threats.
Whether it be a threat against our immune systems or a threat to our cyber safety, these former UMBC rising stars are raising the bar and redefining what protections in technology look like.
— Adriana Fraser
Read more about other Retrievers rising together and stay tuned for more information about UMBC’s 32nd annual Alumni Awards in October.