At least three Indian American collegiate students in California have been awarded with a $15,000 scholarship from the Donald A. Strauss Foundation.

Among the recipients were U.C. San Diego student Varun Govil, Anika Kumar of U.C. Berkeley, and Vardhaan Ambati of Stanford University

Govil is a bioengineering-biotechnology junior aiming to help underrepresented high school students learn more about synthetic biology techniques and feel empowered to do scientific research.

He was chosen for his project proposal to develop synthetic biology outreach initiatives for underrepresented minority high school students.

Govil’s proposal continues the education work that he and other students started through an International Genetically Engineered Machine project team. Last year, the team participated in the iGEM synthetic biology competition, in which students develop novel research tools using biological parts. As part of the competition scoring, students must also design a set of synthetic biology teaching tools to promote synthetic biology literacy, according to a UCSD news report.

His project, Verde Lux, is a continuation of that effort. With the iGEM team, Govil wrote a 200-page synthetic biology textbook and a Periodic Table of Elements for Synthetic Biology, both primers for introducing synthetic biology concepts in a digestible manner to students, the report notes.

Govil plans to extend it further, adding in a teaching platform that integrates virtual reality technology to simulate a wet lab environment, and a capstone project for students to complete.

By adding in these elements of engagement, Govil wants to help bolster underrepresented minority students’ confidence in their ability to do science, it said.

Govil considers the virtual reality tool an especially useful aspect of the Verde Lux program.

“When I’m trying to learn something, it’s often easier to visualize it,” he said in the report.

Govil plans to bring researchers to talk to students about different biomedical fields and to encourage students to read and discuss scientific papers they’re interested in. Throughout this process, students write their own research proposals and at the end of the program, they’ll get to see their project proposals on the Verde Lux website, it added.

Kumar was chosen for her project, “Forget Me Not.” Forget Me Not is an inter-generational nonprofit organization that she founded three years ago designed to reduce instances and feeling of social isolation, loneliness, and depression among older adults. Forget Me Not partners teenage high school volunteers with isolated older adults in their communities in weekly social companionship phone calls. (See India-West story on the nonprofit here:

The program allows teenage volunteers and their respective older adult companions to forge meaningful bonds and lasting relationships through refreshing and mutually reciprocal social interaction.

The calls both alleviate the health issues associated with loneliness in elders and bridge the generational age gap, working towards a healthier and more connected society. In the coming year, she said she hopes to expand the program to more locations to help meet its growing demand, according to the scholarship page.

Ambati was chosen for his project, “Teens Teaching Teens Biotechnology Program.”

According to the scholar page, currently, nearly all biological research takes place in university or industry professional laboratories, preventing most students, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds from exploring biological sciences.

The Teens Teaching Teens Biotechnology Program, which Ambati created with the support of the BioCurious Community Lab in Santa Clara, California, have provided rare hands-on access to biological research to hundreds of middle school and high school students in the Bay Area.

With the support of the Strauss Foundation and by using BioCurious community lab’s connections with other community labs around the world, Ambati said he would like to scale BioCurious’s existing program by piloting and establishing permanent, self-sustaining Teens Teaching Biotechnology programs at other community labs around the country and world, in order to inspire students that, regardless of their age, privilege, can access any university or industry labs to pursue biological research opportunities, it said.

The Strauss Foundation awards scholarships to between 10 and 15 juniors and seniors from 14 California universities each year, including all University of California campuses. Each university nominates up to three students to be considered for the award.

Other students named as 2019 Scholars were Bergen Carloss of Scripps College, Woojin Song of U.C. Irvine, Ahmad Amer Elhaija of UCLA, Elizabeth Sanchez of U.C. Merced, Raymond Ezzat of U.C. Riverside, Samuel Shing of U.C. San Diego, Lauren Roberts of U.C. Santa Barbara, Alyssa Marie Tamboura of U.C. Santa Cruz and Jonathan Wai Lone Ho of U.C. Davis.

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