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.

Wow.

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

  1. Kudos to young Ms. Gavini. Were I still in high school, I can guarantee that my parents would be telling me about this at the dinner table.

  2. Wow indeed. Not just smart, the kid has heart too.

    While Madhavi could become a millionaire by patenting her work, she has something else in mind: making it openly available.
  3. As AliG would say much respect.

    I wonder why we did not pick this news item up before? She was an ISEF winner (as chickpea pointed out) in May of last year. News coverage still biased against science geeks I guess. Everybody knows about the spelling bee winners.

  4. I wonder why we did not pick this news item up before? She was an ISEF winner (as chickpea pointed out) in May of last year. News coverage still biased against science geeks I guess. Everybody knows about the spelling bee winners.

    I found it when I did a search for “Indian American” in News.google.com this morning. Perhaps earlier news coverage of her various awards and research didn’t use that phrase.

    I wouldn’t expect much interest in the western media over this — too obscure. But this ought to be a big story in the Indian media in particular — especially given the recent controvery about Ayurveda.

  5. Gavini is the daughter of Nara Gavini, department head of biological sciences at Mississippi State University, and Lakshmi Pulakat, professor of biology and chemistry.

    http://www.cogito.org/Util/PrintDetail.aspx?ContentId=15596

    Mummy and Daddy’s home pages.

    Like the majority of Westinghouse Science Talent Search entrants, she went to a well-funded specialized magnet high school and had the resources of a world-class research institution at her disposal.

    I’m not impressed by privilege.

    Let me know when an amateur Desi kid scientist with a DIY garage setup makes the press instead of getting arrested.

  6. 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.

  7. Like the majority of Westinghouse Science Talent Search entrants, she went to a well-funded specialized magnet high school and had the resources of a world-class research institution at her disposal. I’m not impressed by privilege

    yeah, when i saw that nayak came from either stuyvesant or bronx science, and most of the intel geeks are from super science backgrounds/schools, i was envious…as i rotted away in our lab in a public school that didn’t even have AP science classes… oh well… it’s all good… everything has a tendency to work out in the end…

  8. Amardeep,

    I guess that was my point. We (at SM) sometimes tend to follow the herd when it comes to coverage of issues (spelling bees, kal penn, shilpa shetty, monica bhardwaj etc) and winners of prestigious science competitions seem to get overlooked.

  9. Enbee, I totally agree with you in that I am not impressed by privilege either. BUT, I gotta say the girl does have heart to go along with those brains and money. (How may of us can say that when we experimented with herbs in our younger days this was not exactly the end result?!) My best friend in the world had CF and it’s a pretty rough thing to deal with for a kid so any advances in finding a cure are much appreciated. Hopefully this kid won’t become some jaded adult scientist. I have a lot of respect for her.

  10. I totally agree with ScienceGroupie.. a magnet school is still a public school, the kids have to work hard & write an entrance exam to get into a school like Stuyvesant or Brooklyn Tech etc.. and then they have to work really hard to compete within the system. Schools like these actually give kids of mid/low economic backgrounds an equal playing ground in excelling & access to many opportunities within their discipline of choice, that their local neighbourhoods/parents would not be able to provide.

  11. Like the majority of Westinghouse Science Talent Search entrants, she went to a well-funded specialized magnet high school and had the resources of a world-class research institution at her disposal. I’m not impressed by privilege.

    Mississippi State is a world-class research institution? I grant you it was where Mom and Dad worked. But privilege? I’ve never been south of Richmond myself, but can anyone imagine having, such a, er, melanin-rich phenotype down there and being privileged?

  12. Mississippi State is a world-class research institution?

    I wasn’t going to touch that one. At all.

    Previous comment still holds…no hating!

  13. But privilege? I’ve never been south of Richmond myself, but can anyone imagine having, such a, er, melanin-rich phenotype down there and being privileged?

    Absolutely. It depends in part on what flavor of melanin you be rockin’, though let’s also not forget the substantial African-American middle class/upper middle class in Atlanta. Also, the overall level of poverty (both black and white) in a state like Mississippi is such that it doesn’t take millions of dollars to be privileged.

    As for Mississippi State, why can’t it be world-class? It’s quite common that a state university is very good in some specific disciplines. I don’t know about MS State, but in Alabama for instance, the Univ of Al at Birmingham (home of the UAB Blazers with the cool dragon logo, for those of you who dig college hoop) is a top science school now, and it isn’t even the mothership of the UA system. To summarize, as ScienceGroupie said, : don’t hate.

  14. I deal with CF on a daily basis and Pseudomonas is a big problem due to biofilm production. This is good news, but like with most drugs will take time (years) to develop.

    Her achievements are what they are and should be celebrated regardless of whether she went to a private school, a public school, or was home schooled. Privilege may get one’s foot in the door, but one is entirely responsible for walking through it.

    Curcurmin, found in tumeric, is also showing promise with the Na channel defect in CF that is responsible for the thick dry secretions CF pt’s have to suffer with.

    Big ups to Madhavi. Much Res-peckt! Boo-yaah-ka-shah

  15. she should be commended.. no matter where she went to school.. it takes a lot of hard work, sweat, and tears to get to where she is now… kudos…

    So does this make up for Kavita?

    err.. do you mean kaavya? nothing makes up for own selfish self-imposed fiasco… madhavi cannot even be compared..

  16. I deal with CF on a daily basis and Pseudomonas is a big problem due to biofilm production. This is good news, but like with most drugs will take time (years) to develop.

    I understand it can be really difficult and I am sorry you have to deal with it, my friend went through a lot too. I agree with you, I am glad to see that there is something, even if it is small and years away from actual implementation, being done.

    Big ups to Madhavi. Much Res-peckt!

    Hell yes.

  17. Amardeep,

    You may find this related NY Times article “Unhappy meals” interesting. I call it related, because, just as yoga is not mere exercise, ayurveda is not merely medicine. (The article talks about reductionism and specifically mentions nutrients in the context of diet, diet in the context of lifestyle etc). Good ayurvedic pratitioners therefore, do not isolate components as much as prescribe changes in diet/lifestyle in addition to herbs that contain those vital components.

    Interesting differences in approach!

  18. Not hating, but in cases like these I have to wonder how much of the research was actually mommy/daddy’s and the child just acted as a ‘research assistant.’ How does a 14 year old develop a research methodology etc etc. I am skeptical after watching how one close relative became an intel finalist.

  19. It depends in part on what flavor of melanin you be rockin’.

    OK. Privilege does not operate on any one dimension alone, but still, certain visible markers can overwhelm other things in specific circs. Otherwise the Citibank VP in a Brooks Brothers suit (who just ‘happens’ to be Af-Am) not getting cabs in Manhattan wouldn’t be such a big deal, would it.

    As for Mississippi State, why can’t it be world-class?

    The question is not whether it can be, but whether it is. And if somehow it isn’t, that only makes what Madhavi did using its facilities that much more impressive in my book. This has nothing to do with being located south of the Mason-Dixon, there are plenty of world class medical research centers in the South.

    To summarize, as ScienceGroupie said, : don’t hate.

    Right on. My earlier comment was to suggest that it would be difficult to interpret her situation as being privileged, nor might Miss State be ‘world class’, so that her achievement is solidly impressive. Of course, it is still impressive even if the other two things were true. Thanks for letting me clarify.

  20. wanted to give my props to this young girl. i haven’t a doubt she had the analytical mind to pull this off herself. and as for privilege. well yeah of course she had the opportunity provided by surrounding. that doesn’t take away from her accomplisment.

  21. This has nothing to do with being located south of the Mason-Dixon, there are plenty of world class medical research centers in the South.

    Chachaji,

    There are some world class Universities in South, period. Not some medical centers. Some examples:

    1) Rice U. 2) UT, Austin 3) Texas A & M 4) LSU 5) Georgia Tech 6) Emory

    In fact, Southern Universities are in massive growth mode, especially UT (Austin), Texas A & M, and LSU

    You would be surprised that Mississippi State with its proximity to NASA Stennis Space Center has some world research class facilities, and collaboration. Stennis Space Center has extemely close tie with MSU, like NASA Goddard Space Center has with DC area Universities.

    Respectfully Yours,

    Gandu Bhanja

  22. 2) UT, Austin
    3) Texas A & M

    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. But there are many other views, backed by various arguments about demographics, economics and resource base, linguistic, folkways etc.

  23. tiggs said:

    Not hating, but in cases like these I have to wonder how much of the research was actually mommy/daddy’s and the child just acted as a ‘research assistant.’

    High school students that I have had interaction with in a lab have ranged from resume padders to ambitious, cause you to rip your hair out, type As who are always annoying you by asking questions (and are usually very bright). She seems to have risen to the top so she is probably is not in the first category.

    The work done was very straight forward. All completely within her grasp. I don’t think there is a need to worry about too much hand holding. I assume she’d be expected to answer questions about her research as well, so she’d have to know more about it than a trained droid. She is competing with others at her level anyway. I am sure the expectations are realistic.

  24. This has nothing to do with being located south of the Mason-Dixon, there are plenty of world class medical research centers in the South. Chachaji, There are some world class Universities in South, period. Not some medical centers. Some examples: Respectfully Yours, Gandu Bhanja

    Hi Kush, Not sure whether your animus derives from my choice of moniker or something I said! My point, to make it again, is not whether Miss State is or isn’t ‘world class’, but that even if it is, that doesn’t diminish Madhavi’s achievement. I was responding to someone who implied otherwise. Of course, if it isn’t (‘world class’) then her achievement is greater still (in my book).

    I’m done with this. Peace

  25. And what is Chetan Nayak doing today? A freaking full prof. at UCLA. That’s pretty damn good!

    I wonder if Abhi knew him… Chick Pea! When you move out here, we can try to make Sepia Destiny happen between the two of you. Can you imagine the first date? “Chetan, OMG, I was like your biggest fan when I saw you on the cover of US News and World Report back in 1988!”

    Just teasing, Chick Pea! ;-)


    And to reiterate what’s been said already on this amazing desi girl– “Wow!”

  26. i think this girl is awesome and inspiring– i hope she keeps reaching greater heights!

  27. “Chetan, OMG, I was like your biggest fan when I saw you on the cover of US News and World Report back in 1988!”

    you just made me roll around in my bowl… ;) … alas, i never ever knew he was at ucla when i was there.. but he is married… but heck he can still be invited to a sm meetup… i’ll get the magazine signed… (geekiness to it’s full extent)

  28. Wow! LetÂ’s not hate on such amazing achievement. You donÂ’t see any of the Hilton sisters curing cancer. Give props were props are due.

  29. Yeah, seriously, what’s up with the hating? If Mommy & Daddy helped her out, they’ll have to stop at some point. Lots of people are equally priveleged and do nothing with it. Kudos to her for taking maximum advantage. It’s much more annoying when such opportunities are wasted.

    Y’all are just jealous b/c y’all didn’t listen to your parents when they suggested Ayurveda as a science project, and y’all were too busy publishing edgy zines to apply to the Westinghouse Project. I, on the other hand, freely admit my mistakes, even if I do it in the second person. :-)

    Also, ahem, private schools are also frequently quite competitive.

    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. Instead of hating I suggest we make it a point to help our local schools and community groups in opening up lab access. That would be local science museums (think Exploratorium, Chabot, Lawrence Hall of Science, Lindsay Museum, Museum of Tech and Innovation in the Bay Area) and groups like the Algebra Project. A lot of kids don’t even have a garage to mess around in, let alone good school labs or access to college facilities.

    This is actually something I’m seriously very interested in, so if you are too, let me know. Saheli AT gmail.

  30. Wow that’s so fab. :) jealous When I was a highschool student I never had access to such facilities…

  31. actually, Saheli, I work for a non-profit in the bay area and one of the four programs I run for at-risk youth involves helping low-income girls of color build interest in math and science! it’s called TechGYRLS and is part of the Racial Justice Program. if anyone is interested in helping out, please contact racialjustice@ywca-berkeley.org

    thanks!

  32. Kush :)

    1) Rice U. 2) UT, Austin 3) Texas A & M

    That list should read as follows

    1. UT Austin
    2. Rice U. Lim_n tending to infinity n+2. Texas A&M
  33. Chacha ji,

    I have no animus.

    My moniker was more having fun.

    I do not think MSU is a world class institute, but as Siddhartha, said, often some State Schools, or lesser known Schools while overall might be subpar, but they have pockets of highest order excellence due to proximity, pork, historical reasons, and all that. In MSU, Stennis Space Center and Trent Lott has played role in few of their things. One has to understand such complexity.

    It is like weak little guy have killer biceps but overall is no athlete. This happens more than you know.

  34. DDiA,

    Not so fast, Orangeblood :-)

    I would prefer: Lim_n —-> infinity [(1/n)+1]. Texas A&M

    Regards, Maroonblood

  35. I totally agree with ScienceGroupie.. a magnet school is still a public school, the kids have to work hard & write an entrance exam to get into a school like Stuyvesant or Brooklyn Tech etc.. and then they have to work really hard to compete within the system.

    What?? You mean one cant get in just by paying exorbitant tuition to get into this elite club?? How unfair!!! Shame on these anti-capitalist people !!!

    “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.

    Bravo!!! Great job by the young prodigy.

  36. Coffeface,

    I understand it can be really difficult and I am sorry you have to deal with it, my friend went through a lot too. I agree with you, I am glad to see that there is something, even if it is small and years away from actual implementation, being done.

    Fortunately I do not have CF, I just deal with the patient’s who do and those who have undergone lung transplants as a result of it. It’s a frustrating existence for these kids, spending many of the productive years of their youth in and out of hospitals receiving IV antibiotics. So if Madhavi’s research pays off this will be terrific.

    MD Anderson is in the same league if not better thought of than Sloan Kettering. UT Southwestern in Dallas, TX has more Nobel Laureates than any other medical school in the US. (Suck on that Harvard and Hopkins)