Several high school students mentored by Dr. Sunil Ahuja’s laboratory won at the Alamo Regional Science and Engineering Fair on
Feb. 15 at St. Mary’s University.
Adithya Mummidi received 1st Grand Award whereas Yugena Gunawardena, Mohan Iyengar, and Glori Das received 1st, 2nd and 3rd in Medicine and Health category. The students were summer volunteers as part of the Voelcker Biomedical Research Academy and VA Voluntary Service.
Each year about 20 to 25 high school students work at Dr. Ahuja’s lab and choose projects that fit with their interests and skills.
Puraskar Ingale, a research fellow in Dr. Ahuja’s lab, who mentored Ms. Das explained that each about four to six students from the lab participate in the Alamo Regional Science and Engineering Fair. The top 2 grand prize winners in each category qualify to participate in the Intel Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). The other winners have the opportunity to compete in the ExxonMobil Texas Science Fair.
“Dr. Ahuja’s lab has a long tradition of mentoring high school students and we are here to give back to our community,” Puraskar said. “We hope this will help young budding scientists to gain a better understanding about latest advances in the medical field.”
While at UT Health Science Center and the VA, the students are able to work on UT or VA funded grants programs and are mentored by UTHSCSA and VA employees.
Muthu Manoharan, a research fellow in Dr. Ahuja’s lab explained that the lab is a great opportunity for high school students to get exposure to sophisticated science.
“I’m grateful for my mentor Dr. Sunil Ahuja, who is constantly providing opportunity for students (no age restriction) to gain access to the advanced research work going on in our lab,” Manoharan said. “Dr. Ahuja has always provided a thriving environment for students to learn and understand the research in our lab. He has always motivated and encouraged the students to participate in the science fairs.”
Mummidi, a 9th grade student at Keystone High School, explained that his project at this year’s fair was about obesity.
“Obesity is a major health problem and Texas has five different cities that have among the highest rates of obesity,” Mummidi said. “Finding new treatments for obesity is a top priority.”
He explained that one of the best parts about participating in the science fair allowed him to interact with fellow students with similar interests and work on interesting research. He plans to pursue a degree in Mathematics of Science.
Das, a high school junior at Keystone High School, has been working in Dr. Ahuja’s lab since the summer after her freshman year.
“I have been passionate about medicine since I was very young. I aspire to become a physician someday,” Das said. “My schoolwork and my experience at Dr. Ahuja’s lab have further piqued my interest in scientific research.”
Her science fair project was on allergies and a gene called TLR4 in nasal epithelial cells to reduce the severity of allergies. Das explained that what sets this research apart is that it specifically focuses on the nasal epithelium.
“Most drugs are immunosuppressing drugs that target white blood cells. This is what causes the side effects,” she said. “Experiments that directly target receptors on nasal epithelial cells can lead to safer drugs.”
Das believes that other high school students in San Antonio who are interested in a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) career, should participate in fairs like this.
“The opportunity to display my research and communicate with professional scientists is immense. Conducting experiments and analyzing data are very laborious processes,” Das said. “As rewarding as winning prizes are, my favorite part of competing in fairs is showing the hard work that I put in. The feedback I get reminds me of why I do research in the first place.”
Mohan Iyengar, is an 11th grader at Keystone High School and his project
was about the genetic information of lung transplant patients.
“Organ transplants are a very significant method of prolonging the lives of people who have suffered organ failure,” Iyengar said. “The possibility of predicting the outcome of a transplant, using tests on differentiated gene expression, following the transplantation procedure can serve as a possible alternative from doctors having to guess how a patient will react to a transplanted organ.
This could allow doctors to prolong the lives of recipients by being able more effectively create plans for treatment.”
Iyengar believes that one of the reason that the students from Dr. Ahuja’s lab did so well was because of the opportunity to work with real data.
“I would definitely do science fair again because the work was definitely worth the experience of working in a real lab with actual data from lung transplant patients,” Iyengar said. “It was a great opportunity for me to actually perform research on a topic that is very significant and has great medical implications.”