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Igniting the spark in future researchers

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August 2017

One day when he didn’t recognize a college student who greeted him warmly, Akash Gunjan politely asked whether they had met before. Yes, the student replied: “When I was in eighth grade, I came to your lab for one day and we purified DNA. That experience just stuck with me, and now I’m a second-year med student.”

That kind of life-changing student experience is what Gunjan, an associate professor of biomedical sciences at the College of Medicine, values the most about his job. And it’s the reason he got involved with Florida State University’s Young Scholars Program.

The son of a literature professor in India, Gunjan grew up on a college campus. He lived in faculty housing, was immersed in the culture of higher education and spent his free time shadowing professors. That upbringing paved the way for his career in science, and also made him aware of something that’s often missing from the lives of other students.

“When I was in the ninth grade, I was learning about DNA and proteins and so on and I had no idea what they were apart from just reading about them,” he said. “I had all these questions but no real practical answers. Because I was living on a campus, I simply started wandering into the science labs, and I would ask the professors if they minded if I tag along. Growing up in that environment was very intellectually stimulating.”

YSP exists to create those same opportunities for other curious young scholars. It’s a six-week science and mathematics summer program for rising Florida high school seniors with significant potential for careers in STEM fields. The program began in 1983 and is free to participating students who stay on campus, attend classes and work with a sponsor to complete a project culminating in a poster presentation.

“YSP helped me to see how my knowledge could be applicable to a real-life problem,” said student Alexandra Saavedra, who presented a project under the guidance of Sachin Shanbhag in FSU’s Department of Scientific Computing.

This year, Gunjan hosted YSP students Wenjie Gong and Sorin Cho from Seminole High School in Sanford. He worked with them to target a specific histone protein mutation that drives the formation of fatal childhood brain tumors known as glioblastomas. With the results, the team concluded that a certain type of inhibitor may work as a method of therapy to target the glioblastomas, leading to further research on its potential effectiveness.

With a declining number of students pursuing academic research, Gunjan sees YSP as a more inviting path to a STEM career.

“There is a big disconnect between the community and what scientists do simply because people sometimes don’t understand what we do or are scared of what we do,” he said. “One of the things that I want to do is break down complicated things into simple terms they can follow and understand.”

Producing unique results and contributing to a larger research agenda are other ways the program continues to drive students’ scientific curiosity.

“This definitely reaffirmed the fact that I want to work in STEM and make advances in science,” said Alexandra Akins, who studied sex-based differences in the venom of a scorpion under Darin Rokyta in the Biological Science Department. “I want to discover things that people have never discovered before. That was the best part of this experience. Nobody else has come to the conclusion that we arrived at. Nobody else had done that yet, and that’s wild.”

Gunjan stays in contact with many students who have shadowed him in the lab.

“For me, making a difference doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ve found a cure for a type of cancer,” he said. “A bigger success would be when the people that I train go on to do bigger and better things and contribute to making society and the world a better place.”