17 Year Old Desi Girl Makes Scientific Breakthrough

Madhavi Gavini is a student at a math/science high school in Mississippi, the Mississippi Institute of Math and Science. mahdavi-scope.jpg At age 14 she got interested in cystic fibrosis, especially the lung infections that kill many people suffering from CF:

It was that thirst for knowledge that drove Madhavi to search for a way to help a friend with cystic fibrosis. “I found out that most people who have CF die of pseudomonas infections,” she recalls, “so I wanted to see if there was anything I could do to help.” She was 14 at the time. “I guess the thought that a 14-year-old can’t really do much to help, didn’t really occur to me,” she says with a shrug.

Pseudomonas bacteria — in addition to killing people with cystic fibrosis — can cause deadly secondary infections in people with immune-suppressing conditions such as AIDS, cancer and severe burns. This opportunistic pathogen forms a thick, protective layer around itself, making it nearly impossible for antibiotics to penetrate and destroy it. (link)

That’s the background. Interestingly, the technique she used to find a way to kill the Pseudomonas bacteria started with Ayurvedic medicine:

With an herb book from her grandparents as her guide, Madhavi sampled common grocery store and green houseplants, such as cinnamon, ginger and aloe. She obtained a strain of pseudomonas bacteria from the local university and began subjecting the germs to various plant extracts.

One of the common tropical plant extracts penetrated the bacterium’s protective layer. Next, Madhavi isolated the specific molecule in the extract that was able to inhibit bacterial growth. She found that the molecule was heat resistant, and resistant to pressure. “It kills the cell,” she explains, “by preventing the transcription of the genes involved in energy, metabolism, adaptation, membrane transport, and toxin secretion.” (link)

The herb she started with, incidentally, is Terminalia Chebula, known in Sanskrit as Haritaki. As for which molecule exactly kills the biofilm that protects the Pseudomonas, the coverage I’ve read doesn’t say.


78 thoughts on “17 Year Old Desi Girl Makes Scientific Breakthrough

  1. Wow, tough crowd.

    I hope she enjoyed herself on this project, I see no reason to automatically assume that she didn’t do significant work on the project by herself, and if she was helped out a bit, what of it? She’s young and a student, I presume (look, who has time to really read these links? Please 🙂 ). She’s not supposed to be a fully-formed independent scientist at this point.

    When it comes to elite versus non-elite institutions, I take a pragmatic view, having been at a wide variety of academic institutions throughout my training and career, some which are called elite, some of which are not, and some of which really elite, at least in my experience of them. You have to decide, for yourself, what you want out of your education and career. Not all institutions will be right for you, the individual. What is the field of study you are interested in, who will your mentors be, what is the department like, etc. What is elite anyway? Nobel prize winners in the lab, to which you may have some access? A huge endowment? Some of which might actually be spent on you? Lots of NIH money? Good teaching? Good undergraduate teaching? It’s not that I don’t believe in such a thing as an elite institution, it’s just that your experience at said institution may or may not be at the level of excellence. Personally, I think the main thing is to be trained/educated by smart people who are not a-holes. And, that, my friends, is much harder to find that simply looking for a brand name……although, sometimes a brand name does mean quality! So, I’m not hatin’, in the lingo of the times, I’m just a cynic.

  2. Oh, and to follow up on Asha’s Dad’s point: I think some of the traditional elite med schools (hey, I’m in Boston and believe me, that’s what they think they are, so I’m just quoting) are going to, and are, facing stiff competition from places where they can pay better, cost of living is better, and junior faculty are treated not as a commodity, but as talent to be nurtured. Ahem.

  3. Personally, I think the main thing is to be trained/educated by smart people who are not a-holes.


  4. Also from the link While Madhavi could become a millionaire by patenting her work, she has something else in mind: making it openly available. She points out, “If I were going to patent this, the rights would have to be sold to a pharmaceutical company, and that would greatly increase the cost of the drug once it’s developed. So to prevent that from happening, by publishing it, the information becomes readily available and any company that wants to manufacture it, would be able to. So the price would be much lower due to competition and the people who need it most will have access to it.” Thats great.

    We know what happened in the turmeric case. if Madhavi files a patent it would be nothing less than bio-piracy. The knowledge does not belong to Madhavi Gavini, but the trial and error processes of many generations. Her identification of the particular molecule that inhibits bacterial growth will be useful to convince people that all this is scientific. We need more such initiatives in India. Unfortunately, the pseudo-secularists will immediately label it as Vedic science and what not, without even trying to create institutions that will help protect collective wisdom (and weed out superstitious belief too). Indeed, patent laws are the most glaring manifestations of culture. India has always practiced collective wisdom, while US patents try to promote individual claims over knowledge. We need to spread more awareness about the shady deals of the WTO. And these are the issues that are of real importance.

    Arundhati Roy was bang on when she said:

    “For all the endless, empty chatter about democracy, today the world is run by three of the most secretive institutions in the world: The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization, all three of which, in turn, are dominated by the U.S.”

    She is labeled as a leftist, when if you do not read her with a jaundiced eye, she is actually fighting for atomized markets – she is on the extreme right.

    Interestingly, the turmeric patent became a fight between Indians themselves. At one side was these two non-resident Indians and at the other was CSIR. And these two non-resident Indians were associated with the University of Mississipi Medical Centre, Jackson, USA.

    The funny part is this: ultimately it becomes an issue of location. Those who think Democrats will bring in change, will ultimately be fighting for American farmers. Subsidies for American farmers will mean more cotton suicides in Vidarbha, Maharashtra. And the money-smelling diaspora – please no ad hominems here, this is a genuine, practical problem – have to think who is eligible for their compassion.

  5. The real point is not that she’s not all that–she is all that–but how can we make sure that other kids who are also all that have access to similar opportunities.

    Well said!

  6. So the good affects of Karakkai kashayam told by my G~Pa is all true? Darn, can I have some of that please 🙂

  7. MD – Just some playful smack talk. You make some good points. Often an institution will produce good clinicians but does not have a large amount of NIH grants or endowment that put them in the top of the US News and Wrold Report Rankings. Us big southern’ dummies just have a little bit of a chip on our shoulders when it comes to our esteemed colleagues from the North. Likely similar to Tufts and BU versus the Harvard heavyweight of Man’s Greatest Hospital/ THE Brigham (note if you want to be a great institution you have to preceed yourself with THE, as in THE Brigham, THE Mayo, THE Cleveland Clinic, THE BI…))

    Brown and Goldstein (statin fame) do lecture to the first year medical school biochem class (1-2 lectures each) and Gilman (G protein) used to lecture for 2 weeks during the pharmacology class, although I don’t know if he still does now that he became dean. Needless to say this is the selling point by the medical school, “4 Nobel Laureates….blah blah”.

    Academic prestige always eguals clinical excellence.

    Oh and MD, no state income tax in Texas!!! Check out UTSW.

    Naiverealist – Excellent points. A little chaos theory in action. Most of us, myself included remain blissfully unaware of the consequences of our everyday actions (shopping at Walmart for instance) on people half way around the world. I’m sure you’ve seen this movie, The Fourth World War. It’s definitely a leftist point of view but well done nonetheless.

    I’m going to listen to some Radiohead now and pretend that I understand the lyrics.

  8. Asha’s Dad:Understood 🙂 I’m mostly talking some smack,too. I am a faculty brat, grew up in a college town, and love Lucky Jim’s (Kingsley Amis) take-down of a certain type of intellectual wannabe, so I am hard to impress, academically. I kinda hate everything, as my previous comments here attest.

    Actually, I have lot of respect for the varied institutions in this town and for the many talented physicians who work in them, I just can’t stand people who are so provincial they have no idea of the quality of work being done around the country. But I digress….

    Yeah, what is Radiohead ever saying, anyway?

  9. i just felt like chiming in after 2 md’s… ;)…

    and to chirp into the nobel laureate talk.. my pharm prof won when he was in the midst of teaching me.. he had won the best teacher of the year award 10 years prior.. refreshing to see a person who can balance both poles without falling or teetering on one side more than the other….

  10. Whether the Lone Star State is actually part of the South is a matter of timeless and protracted debate. Personally I subscribe to the view that East Texas is part of the South, but west of Houston and Dallas is not

    Actually Dallas county demographic is 36 % White persons non hispanic, 36% hispanic origin and 20% African Americans. Dallas county almost always votes Blue. demographic data here. I live in the burbs and there are more churches than there are democrats here 🙂

  11. Madhavi- Wow! @ #11- nice to see some people do consider ‘the greater good’ Seconding Asha’s Dad-thanks for the links/insight Naiverealist.

  12. i love radiohead!!

    on a more related note, i think it is wonderful that madhavi is setting a such an awesome example for young people everywhere. once again, she rocks.

  13. as a desi, science teacher, and alumna of a sister school to madhavi’s, i say rock on, chica.

    for the haters — what does privilege have to do with whether or not we congratulate her for making a scientific breakthrough? it’s one that could possibly be shared widely and help a lot of people; should we just ignore it because it wasn’t made by someone from a lower socioeconomic background?

    for the doubters — the mississipi school for math and science, along with its sister schools in NC, CA, IL, NE, IN etc. have state of the art science facilities where the type of research madhavi conducted is far from fantasy. the schools are publicly funded and admissions are based on academic promise, not mummy and daddy’s wallet.

  14. I’m not impressed by privilege.

    Embee, I’m with CoffeeFace and CinnamonRani et al. Plenty of kids with high octane parents are slumbering at all times. To make progress on ancient collective wisdom all on one’s own is no small feat.

    A friend of mine already lost her daughter to CF, and after reading Asha’sDad have decided better not forward this.

    Naiverealist, you are so cogent to say:

    Her identification of the particular molecule that inhibits bacterial growth will be useful to convince people that all this is scientific. We need more such initiatives in India. Unfortunately, the pseudo-secularists (here and there?)will immediately label it as Vedic science and what not, without even trying to create institutions that will help protect collective wisdom (and weed out superstitious belief too). Indeed, patent laws are the most glaring manifestations of culture.(“local”?) India has always practiced collective wisdom, while US patents try to promote individual claims over knowledge.

    Yet now that you bring this up, it seems the collective wisdom aspect is probably why Madhavi will NOT file a patent. She, and possibly her parents too, is/are not only generous but wise and true to their cultural roots too. Brava!

  15. I salute hard working desi teens, kids and adults like her. They appear to be more intellectual and smarter than the average person. They are very industrious and hard working too. However, she and most of the high schoolers (who have found the “Cure for cancer”, etc) do have a mom or dad (or both) that have connections. These connections will help the student get access to labs, professors that most people would never know even exists. There are some very smart talented people that are “undiscovered” and may stay that way due to their situation, etc. There is no doubt though, that working on a very impressive science project that is good enough for the Intel competition (and others like that) will open doors for the budding scientists/researchers and their careers. I just wish that everyone had the same opportunity.

  16. I am madhavi’s roommate at MSMS,and she is amazing. She developed the project herself, mostly without any outside help. She is truly an amazing individual and I am lucky to be friends with her.

  17. coolest SM comment ever. Thanks Britny!


    Maybe a post made up of the coolest and lamest SM comments ever is in order. (I’m sure I’ll make one of those lists.)

  18. I agree. When i was trynna ID the cause of sars and the way to prevent sars and produce a cure perhaps to those that has it.a vacine, i had gotten a nice trip to the principals office wit a long ass lecture. All though i was scared to tell my parents about it, but i couldnt do anything. Im not envyin the girl, shes smart and god bless her. But there are alot of other desis that have the smarts but not the eqiptments or the environment before gettin called to the office or piled with threats.

  19. I”m frankly stunned that no one has even considered trying an extract or even the whole form of the ayurvedic herb that contained the chemical that killed the pseudomonas. Perhaps a drug isn’t necessary? One would think this entire thread is populated by pharmaceutical reps!

  20. I am the mother of a girl with pseudomonas and would be interested in learning whom I could contact for possible treatment. Has anyone actually been cured. Congraulations to Mahdavi Gavini. You give us hope.