By Debra Lau Whelan
|Shree Bose at the|
Google Science Fair.
It all started 10 years ago, when a timid little second grader named Shree Bose tried to invent blue spinach for kids—an alternative for those who refused to eat the green vegetable. Fast forward to 2011, and Shree, now a 17-year-old senior at Fort Worth Country Day in Texas, was recently named the grand prize winner of theGoogle Science Fair for her discovery in ovarian cancer research.
SLJ caught up with Shree by email while she was in Slovakia last week for Expo Science International—where she managed to take home a gold trophy in the biology category for the same project. We also spoke to Dr. Alakananda Basu, a professor of molecular biology & immunology at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, who supervised Shree's work.
More than 10,000 students from 91 countries entered Google's first science fair. Were you confident about winning?
Shree: Being the grand prize winner of the first ever Google Science Fair was absolutely incredible. To have the opportunity to compete against some of the most incredible minds I've ever had the pleasure of meeting and present in front of world–acclaimed scientists and judges—and to actually be chosen as the winner—was just unbelievable. I had no idea that I would be honored in such a huge way, so it came as a surprise when my name was announced for the grand prize. Winning the Google Science Fair already has—and will—open up so many more doors for my future in research and science, so it was definitely my dream award, and I'm so happy I was given an opportunity to fulfill that dream.
Basu: We knew Shree would compete with many highly talented students, so we kept our fingers crossed for her.
It's pretty impressive that three girls won the top prizes. Are you encouraged by it since science is typically a field dominated by men?
Shree: Personally, I think that all three winners being girls simply shows that our world is changing and that women are stepping up in a field that they have historically not been able to step up in before. So I'm very excited to be a part of that change, and I'm excited to see how our world evolves even more in my lifetime.
Basu: I am not at all surprised, but I am absolutely delighted that three girls won the top prizes.
How did Shree come up with the idea of researching ovarian cancer and the chemotherapy drug cisplatin?
Basu: Shree worked on a project related to breast cancer during the summer of 2009. It was a project I had assigned to her. When Shree came back during the summer of 2010, I knew her abilities, so we discussed several potential projects that she could work on over the summer, including the one with ovarian cancer and cisplatin. I was impressed by Shree's ability to quickly grasp the concepts and perform the experiments, and she got very nice results.
What made you want to tackle ovarian cancer research?
Shree: I actually first got into the field of cancer research about two years ago when my grandfather passed away from lung cancer. That same time, I was also chosen as one of the top 30 finalists in the Society for Science and the Public's Middle School Nationals Program, and I got to travel to Washington D.C. and meet all the other finalists. Meeting so many other finalists who had already started doing college level research from such a young age inspired me to get involved in research. So I started emailing professors in my area and Dr. Alakananda Basu at the UNT Health Science Center accepted me and allowed me to work in her lab all summer. It was there that I started doing background research and started this project.
What at was it like working with her?
Shree: I knew when I started emailing professors that I wanted to work in cancer research, but it was Dr. Basu who first accepted me and allowed me to work in her lab under her supervision. I actually Googled professors in my area in cancer research and read through her bio before emailing her, since her work seemed very close to my field of interest at that time. Working under Dr. Basu's supervision was an incredible experience. While I didn't interact directly with Dr. Basu herself as much as Savitha Sridharan, the graduate student in charge of me, her vast knowledge and expertise in this field was so amazing to look up to while doing this research.
|Dr. Alakananda Basu|
supervised Shree's work.
What made you decide to accept a young high school student to work in your lab?
Basu: I have been fortunate enough to teach several talented high school students, as well as undergraduate students. While I was in Pittsburgh I even worked with an eighth grade student. In fact, my own daughter used to volunteer in different laboratories during summer breaks. Sometimes people do not want to accept high school students because they have no experience, and teaching them requires some time commitment. However, these young scientists also need a place where they can experience the excitement of scientific research. I do not underestimate these young kids since I have seen great potential in them.
Did you see something in Shree that showed promise from early on?
Basu: Soon after Shree joined our lab, we realized that she had lots of potential. My students and I often discussed that even though Shree was a high school student, she performed more at the level of a graduate student. Shree has a strong desire to excel. I was really impressed by her ability to organize and present her research. She not only has the intelligence and motivation, she also has a very pleasing personality. It was a pleasure having her in our lab.
Shree, tell us about your winning project and what you discovered.
Shree: My project was about drug resistance in ovarian cancer, and basically we found a link between this energy protein of the cell called AMP kinase and the development of ovarian cancer resistance to a drug called cisplatin. This work not only has tremendous implications for boosting chemotherapy efficacy when cells become resistant and the patients have a recurrence, but also for future research in this field.
How did you feel when you made your discovery?
Shree: Making such a discovery with such huge implications was a bit unreal. Seeing those bands on a blot and understanding their meaning in a real world context was just an incredible epiphany and the idea that my work might be important in chemotherapy for the future just makes the feeling absolutely unbelievable.
How will this be used in the treatment of ovarian cancer?
Basu: Cisplatin is often used to treat ovarian cancer. However, patients often develop resistance to the drug, and this is a major cause of therapy failure. AMPK (the adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase) plays an important role in maintaining cellular energy levels. In the experiments Shree conducted, we observed that AMPK is activated in cisplatin-resistant cells, and inhibiting AMPK makes the drug-resistant cells sensitive to cisplatin. This means that inhibiting AMPK may be a way to make drug-resistant ovarian cancer cells begin responding to treatment again. These are preliminary results that we need to test further before we can bring it to patients, but it helps us understand drug-resistance, which in turn can help us more effectively treat ovarian cancer.
Did you conduct most of your research in libraries?
Shree: I did most of my background reading on online libraries and research databases. Libraries have always played an important role in my developing interest in research and science as I grew up. With my membership to the Fort Worth Public Library, I remember reading everything I could get my hands on as a kid. That constant learning experience is something I've held onto throughout my entire life.
Do you come from a family of scientists?
Shree: My dad is actually a materials engineer who works with metals, and my brother has always been interested in science. I guess I love how science can be used to explain the world around us and how we interact with it. I just find that fascinating—whether it be chemistry or biology or physics.
What's your favorite subject at school?
Shree: My favorite subjects in school are probably biology and English. I am a straight A student and at the top 10 percent of my class currently.
What do you want to do when you grow up?
Shree: This project actually has many different aspects that are left to be researched, and I'm especially excited to maybe play a role in following those. We'll see I guess. As for my future, I hope to pursue an undergraduate degree in biology with a premed focus and then hopefully follow an M.D.-Ph.D. where I could combine my interests in research with being a practicing physician.
Your prize includes $50,000 for future college studies. Where is your ideal place to attend college?
Shree: My ideal place to attend college is Harvard right now. But Stanford, UC Berkeley, Rice, Johns Hopkins, and Florida Institute are all great schools that are on my list along with a lot of others.
Your prize also includes a 10-day trip to the Galapagos Islands, and a separate trip to visit theCERN particle physics laboratory in Switzerland. What do you plan on doing in the Galapagos and at CERN?
Shree: I'm so excited to have the opportunity to travel to CERN and actually see something that most people only talk about-namely the Large Hadron Collider [the world's largest and highest-energy particle accelerator] The CERN team mentioned that if the LHC was running at the point when I visit, I might be allowed to sit in the control room with the physicists and understand the procedures and what would be going on. Personally, I think that would be such an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experience and, as of yet, it's pretty much my dream for visiting CERN. As for the Galapagos, the islands are known for being so important to biology and environmental sciences so I'm just looking forward to the entire experience of being on the islands with a National Geographic Expedition.