Student researchers explore science and career in college labs

Jessica Wang | Staff Writer

Senior Neha Patil helped develop a gel to preserve hemoglobin at room temperature at the University of Kentucky.

Chemical reactions are not the only things being catalyzed in labs — curiosity is as well.

Many colleges offer the opportunity for high school students to conduct research under the guidance of a professor or college student. Senior Priya Bandaru said she saw this as an opportunity to expand her academic horizons, taking her learnings from AP Bio and Honors Anatomy far beyond the vacuum of the classroom.

“I started emailing a bunch of professors at UC,” Bandaru said. “It was kind of random because I didn’t know those professors and I just emailed them to try it. Out of about six or eight emails, I got two responses. One was about doing research with bugs, and I didn’t want to do that. But the other one was about microbiology, which was interesting to me.”

During the summer of her junior year, Bandaru began researching with Professor Grogan, a professor in the biology department at the University of Cincinnati. Assisting him, Bandaru was able to delve into cutting-edge research, working first-hand with a novel microorganism.

“Professor Grogan was investigating the microorganism called Sulfolobus Acidocaldarius,” Bandaru said. “It’s part of the domain Archaea and largely unknown to the scientific community. These organisms have been discovered pretty recently compared to prokaryotes and eukaryotes, so he’s figuring out what the functions of proteins are in that microorganism.” 

Understanding protein functions is a challenge that has fueled the scientific community for years. In order to tackle such a broad and complex problem, Bandaru and other researchers take an orthogonal approach. 

“The question is what is the role of the protein,” Bandaru said. “But in the lab, you have to focus on one aspect. So for me, I’m focusing on whether the protein aids in plasma stability.”

Similarly, senior Sruthi Parthasarathi took on a challenging research endeavor her junior year summer. Parthasarathi, however, was not just seeking to gain knowledge — she was also testing the waters for a potential career.

“I was really interested in being a professor,” Parthasarathi said. “But I knew that they did a lot of research on the side and I didn’t know if I wanted to spend that time in the lab. So I emailed a few professors from UC, Miami, and other nearby colleges to ask if I could intern in their lab over the summer.”

After getting into contact with Professor Carol Dabney-Smith from Miami University, Parthasarathi immersed herself completely into the research, spending six to eight hours a day at the lab under the guidance of an undergraduate student.

“I was with a biochemistry undergrad,” Parthasarathi said. “The professor’s lab focuses on this protein transport chain in chloroplast for plants. So what the undergrad was trying to do was create a large sample of the protein they were studying so they could study it more. Her job was to get the gene sequence for that protein, create it in some bacteria, and harvest it from that.”

Senior Neha Patil also has an interest in biochemical research. For her, this journey within scientific research began at a hospital in Kentucky.

“I was in Louisville for a neuroscience shadowing event at Norton Children’s Hospital,” Patil said. “The person that I shadowed told me there was a lot of research that I could do at the University of Louisville. So, I contacted some of the professors there and they let me research with them.”

Despite the uncertainty, these high school seniors willingly probe the unknown — even though their efforts will not necessarily result in a tangible end product.

“In this kind of research, I don’t think there will necessarily be real-world applications,” Bandaru said. “But it’s always nice to be able to have a specific procedure and develop that procedure so that other people can use it to figure out how to investigate whether this protein does this function.”

Patil, however, was able to see the fruits of her labor. Manipulating variables such as pH and temperature, Patil contributed to making an important discovery for better preserving hemoglobin.

“I researched the stability of hemoglobin,” Patil said. “We tried to find a way to preserve it at room temperature without the use of harmful chemicals for the body. We developed this silica-based gel that allows you to store hemoglobin at room temperature without having to put it in a refrigerator or something. It helped preserve hemoglobin over a longer period of time, which is important because hemoglobin is really hard to get and really expensive.”

Working amongst professors, graduates, and undergraduates, Bandaru, Parthasarathi, and Patil quickly learned new lab techniques and grasped challenging concepts. However, for Parthasarthi, the most unexpected part of her experience was not the difficulty of learning new things.

“The biggest surprise was kind of how unstructured it was,” Parthasarathi said. “Unlike school, you don’t really know how to get there because no one’s found the answer before.” 

Photos by Henri Robbins, graphic by Andrea Hefferan.