NEW YORK — It was rebellion against parental expectations that led Indian American teen Indrani Das to embark on the brain research project that eventually won her the $250,000 Regeneron Science Talent Search award for high school students.
Most Indian parents want their children to become doctors, but not her parents.
Das, who calls herself a rebel, told IANS that her parents had said to her, "Whatever you do, don't be a doctor. Don't become a doctor, it's long and expensive."
"So I decided I wanted to be a doctor," she said.
That rebellion led her to her medical-oriented science project.
Her parents Bidyut and Tanima Das, who are from Kolkata and now live in Oradell, New Jersey, are bankers by profession.
The 17-year-old, who is in her final year of high school at the Academy for Medical Science Technology in Hackensack, New Jersey, said she wants to work both as a doctor and scientific researcher.
"I want to be physician-scientist," she said. "I would like to see patients, but I would also like to do research."
Her project, which explored ways to treat damage to the brain from injuries or disease, won her the top prize last month at the Science Talent Search competition. Conducted by the Society for Science and the Public and sponsored by Regeneron, it is the nation’s foremost science contest.
Nicknamed the Junior Nobel Prize, the Science Talent Search competition was originally sponsored by Westinghouse in 1942 and then by Intel from 1998 to 2016.
Twelve of the contest alumni have won Nobel Prizes.
Indian American teens took five of the top ten awards in this year's competition, in which 1,700 high school students participated.
SSP president Maya Ajmera said Das's "dedication to making the world a better place through science – whether through her research on treating brain damage or volunteer work in her community – is truly inspiring."
Explaining her research, Das said that when Alzheimer, Parkinson's, stroke or a traumatic injury affects the brain, the neurons, which are the main signal cells of the brain, are killed.
Following the damage to the brain, astrocytes – the supporting cells that nurture and protect neurons – go haywire and create a toxic chemical environment, which poisons the neurons.
"My work concentrates on getting these supporting cells to behave correctly," Das said. "I found one way it can be made better, essentially by increasing one protein at the membrane of these supporting cells."
"It pushes these supporting cells with treatment to create a chemical environment that is safer and cleaner for neurons to grow in," she said.
It will be a while before a medical treatment based on her research can be made available to patients
"First thing I will need to do is use my treatment in animal models," Das said. "So I will have to work on increasing the complexity of my models."
She said she wants to find out where and how exactly the treatment is effective.
"Finding how it works will help me back-track and understand this whole injury condition better, which is something nobody really understands," she said.
Her school is equipped with a cell culture facility where she can conduct her research.
Donna Leonardi, her biology teacher, is her mentor. She is a former lab director at New York Presbyterian, a major medical facility affiliated with Columbia and Cornell universities.
In preparation for a medical career, Das got her emergency medical technician certification last year. As a volunteer EMT, she goes out on ambulances to attend to emergencies as a first responder.
Along with her studies and research, she manages to find time for non-medical activities, too. "I play the trumpet," she said. "I enjoy skeet-shooting, weightlifting."
And one of her ambitions for college? "I hope to play rugby in college," she said. "I told you I was a rebel."
(Read India-West’s story here)