High School Student Finds Success in Dr. Vineet Gupta’s Lab

Someday, thousands of people in remote areas of Africa and India might benefit from the tuberculosis-related research a high school senior is pursuing in the Miller School lab of Vineet Gupta, Ph.D., assistant professor of medicine, biochemistry and molecular biology.

During the past three summers and, on as many days as she could during the school year, Ellora Sarkar left her typical teenage life behind and headed to the Gupta lab, where, under his guidance, she has been developing a novel, easy-to-use diagnostic test to detect TB in patients and pinpoint multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB), the classification of TB that is resistant to the two most powerful, first-line drugs for the disease.

Her project, which is largely her own initiative, has a goal of developing novel TB diagnostics for resource-poor settings, and is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

It should come as no surprise then, that Ellora, who is set to graduate from Miami Palmetto Senior High School in June, was a 2012 semifinalist in the highly regarded Intel Science Talent Search, and the only finalist from Florida in the regional division of the 2011 Siemens Competition, the math, science and technology contest often called “the Nobel Prize of high school.”

“To us, this is the holy grail of science, so being involved in any way is a really huge deal,” Ellora said. “Working with Dr. Gupta in the lab has helped me to accomplish so much. Normally in a lab, someone at my level is handed procedures, but I believe that by allowing me to review the literature and find my own procedures, Dr. Gupta has given me the confidence and inspiration to take on a really big project.”

Big, indeed, because fighting MDR-TB is difficult and expensive. The development of a more effective and efficient way to diagnose drug-resistant strains could save many lives in parts of the world where money to fight disease is scarce.

“Right now the only way to tell if you have multidrug-resistant TB is through expensive and time-consuming lab tests and, obviously, a small village in backwoods India doesn’t have the resources to treat such patients,” said Ellora, who has received acceptance letters from many elite universities, but has not decided which to attend. “The research we are working on is very significant.”

Ellora, who loves and performs Indian classical dance, also raises funds to support schools in the Korakati village of India, the area where her parents are from. Her father, Dilip Sarkar, Ph.D., is associate professor and director of graduate studies in UM’s Department of Computer Science, and her mother, Shampa Sarkar, M.B.B.S., M.S., recently completed her residency in psychiatry at UM/Jackson Memorial Hospital.

Although Ellora’s project is not typical for Gupta’s lab, he is excited about mentoring a high school student who is so committed to her work and passionate about finding a scientific solution to help others.

”It is very important that we encourage young people to focus some of their attention on science and engineering so they can help us meet the many scientific challenges that lie ahead,” said Gupta, who is also the founding co-director of the Peggy and Harold Katz Family Drug Discovery Institute. “We need to have people in the pipeline who could become great scientists. Ellora is in that pipeline.”

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