Student interview: Rushma's research on genetic diseases
Rushma is a senior at the American Embassy School, New Delhi and was a part of our fall 2020 cohort. Her paper was a review titled "CRISPR/Cas9 Treatment of Genetic Diseases." Our program strategist, Prakriti, spoke with her about her research.
Prakriti: You did your Lumiere research paper on sickle cell anemia and gene therapy. Could you elaborate a bit more on what your specific question was and what interested you about this area?
Rushma: My research paper focuses on how genetic engineering, namely CRISPR/Cas9, can help treat genetic diseases, such as sickle cell anemia, thrombophilia, and breast cancer. I evaluated how this technology can revolutionize medicine and provide a gateway for treating monogenic disorders. I also analyzed the limitations of CRISPR and how to mitigate its harmful effects on the body. What interested me about this area was the breadth of topics I could study in the field of genetics, and especially that I could focus on emerging technology as an alternative to previously used treatments, hence increasing efficiency in healthcare.
Prakriti: Why did you choose to do research on this topic?
Rushma: Medicine is an ever-evolving practice and I believe that the field of genetics has been at the forefront of medical research. CRISPR/Cas9 has superseded previous genetic tools, such as ZFNs and TALENs. Therefore, I believed it was crucial to conduct research on something that is relatively new in this field and that has the potential to treat multiple different genetic disorders that haven’t been studied in this light before.
Prakriti: You did your research with Valentyna Kostiuk, a Ph.D. in genetics at Yale University. Could you walk us through the process of working with a mentor, and what a standard session with them looks like?
Rushma: Working with a mentor was extremely essential, especially for this research project since this was the first time I had ever written a focused research paper. The process started with establishing a general area of interest and after a brainstorming session with my mentor, I was able to land on CRISPR and sickle cell anemia. My mentor had been there to guide me through the research proposal, collection of ideas, writing the paper, and editing. Since all the articles were overflowing with medical jargon, I had an extremely hard time understanding the basics of CRISPR, which was essentially the foundation of my paper. So, my mentor walked me through all the articles that I had read while introducing me to a plethora of important medical ideas. In this process, I was able to explore beyond my research question and learn from an experienced mentor about the implications of research in medicine. Not only that but the writing process was made much smoother with the assistance of my mentor. She was there every step of the way to provide me with feedback and, most importantly, motivation and assurance throughout the process.
Prakriti: You had always had clarity about the general direction you wanted to take your research in, even before joining Lumiere. Can you tell us what the entire research process was like for you? What was the highlight of this process?
Rushma: The entire research process was definitely very new for me. However, since the program was properly structured, I was able to follow through with all the obligations. I was able to explore not only my passion for genetics but also the process of research, all the way from data collection to final editing. It opened my eyes to the importance of doing focused research and helped me grasp onto something that I want to continue doing even in college. My highlight in this process was forming close relationships with other researchers in my cohort and also with my mentor. This happened through the game nights of trivia and communication through Slack and Discord. It was really interesting to connect with other students who had similar interests and even ones who were doing research in a completely different field than me.
Prakriti: What are some of the takeaways you’ve had from doing this research project? How are hands-on research projects like yours different from in-class learning?
Rushma: Some of the takeaways I have had from doing this research project include the skill to read numerous articles and gather information to compile it as a literature review. I’ve learned how to present my research in a shortened form and engage the audience in a field that they probably hadn’t explored before. I believe these skills are extremely beneficial for a career in science and research, and I am extremely grateful for having been exposed to this in high school. In-class learning, in my opinion, limits us to a core curriculum that we have to take in order to fill credits. We learn a lot, however, there is little to no encouragement of going above and beyond what is taught in class. This hands-on research project is something that was completely out of the classroom and that urged me to think beyond what I have been taught. I was able to critically analyze other research papers and learn about an extremely difficult medical concept, an experience I would not get from in-class learning.
Prakriti: How has research affected your life since the end of the program?
Rushma: At the end of the program, I progressed to the publication program. I have been working with my mentor to make final edits to my paper and submit it to a high school journal. This process has allowed me to catch a glimpse of the entire research process from start to finish. Moreover, doing this research has helped me narrow down the interests that I will pursue in college, including hematology and genetics. I have been able to gain first-hand experience in the essential skill of research, which has changed my life in that I feel significantly more ready to pursue independent research projects in the future.