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Youth Power to Fight Disease

The teenagers' research about cancer and asthma prompted scientists to stop to take a look.


Cancer and asthma won, with the big C leading the race. This isn’t about the dreaded diseases taking over the world but about the projects of teenage researchers, Shree Bose and Naomi Shah, for the inaugural Google Global Science Fair 2011.

Bose and Shah focused on cancer and asthma, respectively, and were lauded by a panel of judges comprising Nobel laureates and tech visionaries for their impressive research on these subjects.

Aimed at students aged 13 to 18, the fair encouraged individual participation or small teams centering on scientific issues that are “interesting, creative, worded scientifically and relevant to the world today.”

More than 10,000 students from 91 countries entered the fair by submitting entries over the Web and 15 finalists presented their projects to judges at Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters 
in July.

Beating cancer resistance
For Bose, winner in the 17 to 18 years category as well as the overall winner whose work was deemed “groundbreaking,” this is the start of a journey she had planned since she lost her paternal grandfather to cancer. “When he was diagnosed with cancer, even though his memory remained as sharp as ever, he just wasn’t himself. I watched my father go through the process of losing a parent and something inside made me want to do my best so that no one ever suffered like this,” says Bose, a student of Fort Worth Country Day School in Texas. 

Her first steps in science involved injecting spinach with blue food coloring in second grade since she thought blue vegetables would provide an alternative for children who would not eat green veggies. However, she forgot to water the plants. The spinach didn’t live too long but the scientist in Bose was awakened.

A couple of weeks ago, I got a chance to meet the winners of the Google Science Fair. I want to point out that all three of them were girls. (Applause.) They had beat out 10,000 other applicants from over 90 countries. So I had them over to the Oval Office, and they explained their projects to me, and I pretended that I understood. (Laughter.) One of the winners, Shree Bose, did her first experiment in second grade by trying to turn spinach blue. (Laughter.) In fourth grade, she built a remote-controlled garbage can. And for this science fair, at the age of 17, she discovered a promising new way to improve treatment for ovarian cancer—at 17. And she also told me very matter-of-factly that she’ll be going to medical school and getting a doctorate, and I suspect she will do so. (Laughter.) She did not lack confidence. And it’s young people like Shree, but also the people on this stage, who make me incredibly hopeful about the future.

—Excerpts from President Barack Obama’s remarks at the presentation of the National Medals of Science and the National Medals of Technology and Innovation, on October 21, in Washington, D.C.

President Barack Obama congratulates the winners of the Google Global Science Fair, Naomi Shah (from left), Shree Bose and Lauren Hodge at the Oval Office in the White House. Official White House photo by PETE SOUZA

Her project for the Google science fair, titled, “AMPK and Cisplatin Resistance,” deals with drug resistance in ovarian cancer. “My project is about how the drug Cisplatin (commonly used to treat this kind of cancer) goes into the DNA of cancer cells and kinks it up so that the cell realizes that something is so wrong that it must kill itself. A major problem with this drug is that cells often become resistant to this and so patients who have responded well to [Cisplatin] often come back with recurrence of the disease. This is often the biggest problem with this drug at the moment. We thought this has to do with a protein called AMP Kinase, an energy protein that, in the cell, regulates the energy ratio and signals to the cells when energy ratios are high or low. Basically, we turned off the signal and studied the way in which this affected cancer as well as non-cancer cells,” she explains. Her proudest moment? Proving that AMP Kinase does play a role in developing resistance to this drug.

Balancing schoolwork and research can be tough but Bose, whose Google winnings include a $50,000 study scholarship, an internship at the CERN particle physics laboratory in Switzerland and a 10-day trip to the Galapagos Islands, also finds time to swim and edit her school newspaper.

Father Animesh Bose, a materials engineer with a degree from IIT Kharagpur, and mother, Prarthana, have always been supportive. Bose started working on the project in May 2010 and finished it by the end of August. “Three months actually but they involved insane hours,” she says. When she first conceived the idea, she e-mailed several professors and many rejected her before Alakananda Basu, professor in the Department of Molecular Biology and Immunology at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, took her on. “From then on, it was the lab,reading tons of papers, talking to graduate students and spending all summer working while my friends were having a great time outside,” says Bose.

Her elder brother, Pinaki, whom she describes as the smartest person she knows, is a science buff who would explain things to her when they were children. “He was always building stuff with Lego and I was the kid who would find the suitable pieces,” she laughs. “Today I have done something that helps me explain science to others. In so many ways, that makes me feel I have finally grown up.”

Breathing free 
Anyone familiar with the tight, choking sensation that asthma produces will attest to the importance of Naomi Shah’s project, “Air Pollution Impacts Lung Health of Asthma Patients.” Winner in the 15 to 16 age group, Shah found during her research from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and WHO statistics that asthma causes 1.6 million deaths a year. Some “people almost spend 90 percent of their lives indoors. ...Air quality doesn’t get the attention it should,” she says. While doctors prescribe medicine to help patients, there is not much research into how much damage airborne pollutants can actually cause.

Her parents own a business and no one in the family has a medical background. Some of her cousins have asthma. “These are genetic diseases that can affect any member of my family and me. Often environmental factors are a triggering cause and while we don’t have control over everything, we can fix certain environmental factors...,” she says.

Her research work involved reading vast quantities of literature meant for graduate students and approaching health-related industries in her hometown of Portland, Oregon. “I started with the smaller articles first. They made getting through the long, peer-reviewed ones easier,” she says. Another major source of encouragement was seeing how receptive people were to her ideas. Her parents were a constant support, driving her around to the subjects’ homes.  

She presented her research in various groups and often patients would approach her voluntarily. She contacted companies who helped her with equipment like lung health and air quality monitors. “I am glad they saw the potential in the research to help many people,” says Shah. Not having a mentor was often a struggle. “But this was never a burden. I enjoyed it like I would a school project. I had loads of fun working with my subjects in summer,” she says.  
Shah had to do some innovative scheduling to get things done. “I like doing things perfectlyand this project taught me time management,” she says. 

Both Shah and Bose are veterans of many science fairs and exhibitions but they agree that the Google experience was unique. Now it’s time to plan for high school, college and, of course, focus on developing the potential the judges have lauded.

 

 

Paromita Pain is currently doing her M.A. in specialized journalism from the Annenberg School of Communication, University of Southern California