Sandra Moon, a high school student in Dr. Sunil Ahuja‘s lab, won first place in the Biomedical and Health category at the Texas State Science Fair. The fair took place on Saturday, April 1 at the Henry B. Gonzales Convention Center.
“In addition to meeting so many new people – doctors and students both – from around the state, I was also able to learn about all the new novel projects that the students there had brought to the fair,” said Moon, an 11th grader at Claudia Taylor Johnson High School. It was a wonderful and unforgettable experience!”
The project that she presented at the state fair was called “A Genetic Polymorphism in the PCSK9 Gene associated with a rapid HIV disease progression among European- and Hispanic- Americans.”
“The project investigated the possible relationship between two single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) affecting the expression of the PCSK9 gene and the disease progression from HIV infection to an AIDS diagnosis,” she said. “The findings show that one of the polymorphisms, called rs505151, actually had a significant association with an increased disease progression rate!”
Moon became interested in HIV/AIDS research during her biology high school science class.
“Microorganisms invisible to the eye, such as HIV, are able to cause fatal diseases at a large magnitude,” she said. “This led to my interest in Dr. Ahuja’s lab, which focuses on HIV, and I am grateful to have been granted the opportunity to work there.”
During the summer, she was able to learn techniques such as how to aliquot DNA samples and use the TECAN machine to distribute the mastermix solution and DNA samples into a 384 well-plate in order to run PCR to determine the genotypes for each sample.
“The entire experience of being able to work in a lab setting and participating in research that could be practically applicable to the real world for the first time was extremely insightful and eye-opening for me,” she said.
Moon was so passionate about her research that she continued work after the summer. She worked closely with Dr. Weijing He and Andrew Carrillo.
“I visited the lab during the Thanksgiving, winter, and spring breaks – in addition to several Saturdays – to use the data from the allelic discrimination files to acquire genotypic frequencies that were used in the statistical analysis for my research,” she said.
During the science fair, Moon was invited to a summer camp at Southern Methodist University called the Governor’s Science and Technology Champions’ Academy, which she plans to attend at the end of this summer.
“Although I will not be advancing to Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF), all of the experiences and knowledge gained definitely outweigh that,” she said. “I think I would like to participate again next year and attempt qualifying for ISEF!”
In the future, Moon intends to pursue an M.D./Ph.D. degree.
“Originally, I intended to pursue medical school to become a surgeon. However, after having met and talked with several MD-Ph.D.s who were both surgeons and researchers, I gained additional interest in this future career route. Before having participated in the research for science fair, the M.D./Ph.D. career route was only a consideration; however, as I learned how influential and crucial researching in the medical field was, I realized that being able to work in both lab and hospital environments would be a worthwhile occupation to have, as one would able to improve the medical conditions of both the present and the future,” she said.