Prestigious national award honors undergraduate achievement in science fields.
By Laura Donnelly-Smith
George Washington University junior Aparna Sajja spent last summer as a research intern at the National Institutes of Health’s Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, a laboratory focused on stem cells and neurovascular biology, where she studied a mechanism in mouse embryos that signals how the animal’s blood vessels will develop and differentiate.
“This research has many potential implications for regenerative medicine, especially in dealing with stroke, cancer research and treatment of amputations,” she explained. “First we are trying to understand some of the basic control mechanisms for normal development, so that we can apply these findings to develop more powerful regenerative strategies.”
For her research achievements, and for her overall academic success as a student in GW’s prestigious seven-year combined B.A./M.D. program, Ms. Sajja recently became one of only 272 undergraduates nationwide to be awarded a Goldwater Scholarship for the 2013-14 academic year. The award, given by the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation, honors college juniors and seniors for excellence in mathematics, science or engineering. The scholarships are worth up to $7,500 and can be applied to a student’s tuition, fees, books and room and board.
Ms. Sajja worked as a high school summer intern at NIH’s Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, an experience that solidified her desire to study medicine. She decided to attend GW specifically because of its combined B.A./M.D. program, which allows students to earn both an undergraduate degree and a medical degree in seven years. Ms. Sajja will graduate with a B.S. in biology and a B.A. in philosophy, with an anatomy minor.
She currently works in Professor Akos Vertes’ lab, doing experimentation with a mass spectrometer—a machine that analyzes the chemical composition of organic materials. She investigates the composition of fatty acids in microalgae, which has implications for the development of biofuels, as well as for increasing our understanding of what causes heart disease.
Dr. Vertes said he recognized Ms. Sajja’s potential when she first approached him last year about conducting research.
“Her clear focus on her studies and vibrant intellect were immediately obvious,” he said. “She quickly learned the tools of the trade in the lab and started to come up with some research ideas.”
Dr. Vertes said Ms. Sajja’s interest in investigating the metabolism of algae fit well within the parameters of a Department of Energy grant his lab had received. The alga she is studying, Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, is a perfect system in which to explore biological energy conversion, he said.
“The information we will gain from Aparna’s studies will be of interest to plant biologists but also advances our work in support of the mission of the Department of Energy. The Goldwater Scholarship enables Aparna to devote more of her time to this project, and is a great honor to all involved,” Dr. Vertes said.
Paul Hoyt-O'Connor, director of GW’s Center for Undergraduate Fellowships and Research, worked closely with Ms. Sajja to prepare her application for the Goldwater Scholarship.
“I couldn't be more pleased that Aparna has been able to pursue serious research,” Dr. Hoyt-O’Connor said. “Whether exploring neural and arterial development at NIH during the summer or using mass spectrometry to study fatty acid composition in Dr. Vertes' lab this past year, Aparna is uncommonly passionate about biomedical research. Her curiosity is unmistakable,” he said.
Ms. Sajja also serves as a tutor with GW’s District Youth Empowerment Program, teaching math and science topics to students at School Without Walls, an experience that has sparked her interest in eventually teaching at the college level. She advised other students who have interests in particular research topics not to be shy about approaching faculty members and asking about research opportunities.
“Find a professor or a lab that is willing to take you in,” she said.
Though it will be many years before she’s done with her medical degree and residency, Ms. Sajja said she hopes that she can one day combine her interest in research with her desire to practice medicine.
“I’d like to conduct translational research someday—bench to bedside, or vice versa,” she said. “For me, the most appealing part of research is that it’s like solving a puzzle. The end goal is important, but I also really enjoy the process.”