Nikhilesh Ray-Mazumder is a senior at my highschool. He was recently recognized as a semi-finalist in the prestigious IntelScience Talent Search, one of 300 in the country, for his project"Successful Transfection Using Functionalized Gold Nanoparticles."
Before we begin, let me say congratulations! Please introduceyourself and paint us a picture of yourself.
Hi, I'm NikhileshRay-Mazumder, you can call me Nik. I am of Indian descent and was born inPasadena, California. I lived there for six years, after which I moved toRockville, Maryland for another six years. At the end of sixth grade, I movedhere, where I live with my family of five and my dog.
How did youbecome interested in science? When did you become interested inresearch?
As a kid, I was always interested in science and how the worldworks, but I wasn't very interested in research until eighth grade when my dadinvited me to help at his research lab. He studies immunology and oncology,topics that piqued my interest. Working with him, I learned basic laboratoryprocedures for sterile cell culture and conducted a mini-project on the effectsof alpha and gamma interferon on breast cancer cells.
Freshman year, Iworked at the same lab but this time did my own experiment. I used viruses toinsert a green fluorescence gene into dendritic cells and watched the effects. Ifound that immature dendritic cells fluoresced green under fluorescent light morethan the mature cells. Later I would incorporate this into my research project Isubmitted to the Intel Science Talent Search.
How did you go aboutconducting a research project?
My main project was conducted at the GarciaCenter for Polymer Research at Stony Brook University. I heard about this labbecause many science contest winners had worked there. Sophomore year, I appliedand was accepted, and I got involved with material science research,which is very different from other projects I had done.
The summer aftersophomore year, I started research into gold nanoparticles and their biomedicalapplications. I worked alongside two friends, Jessica and Neil, and studied thephysical and chemical properties of gold nanoparticles. Jessica and I didresearch with absorption to DNA and got good results in terms of increasing theabsorption. The three of us entered the Long Island Science and Engineering Fairmy junior year and became finalists.
After this experience, I decided toexplore different aspects of gold nanoparticles, especially their biologicalfacets. This past summer, I worked with transfecting DNA, which is a fancy termfor putting DNA into cells. My project dealt with comparing nanoparticles versuslipid-based agents in transfecting DNA. The green fluorescent protein came intoplay again (it was a measure of how well the DNA had been taken up by the cells).I found that a combination of nanoparticles and a specific lipid delivery agentled to greater fluorescence (increased transfection), but that using only thelipid-based agent was ineffective. It turned out that the lipid-delivery agentwas actually killing cells but the nanoparticles helped keep themalive.
That sounds very interesting and difficult. Could you tellus what an average day at the lab was like?
Each day at the lab wasdifferent. Some days I would do basically no "lab work" but look uppapers, while others I would spend the day cleaning silicon wafers and preparingnanoparticle thin films to be tested. Most of the procedures didn't require verymuch work, maybe an hour, and then they would need to be monitored every sixhours or so. Thus, I had a lot of free time while my experiments were running. Ispent most of this time reading or preparing for the next phase.
What aresome possible applications of your research?
My research is one of manyinitial steps to producing a "blow vaccine," a vaccination techniquethat does not need a syringe to administer. This has the obvious benefit of notbeing painful, but more important it can be used in developing nations wheremedical personnel are not required to be present to administer needlevaccinations. Additionally, needle-borne illnesses (like HIV) would be greatlyreduced.
How difficult was it to write the paper?
The paperwas not too difficult because I had carefully documented each step in my labnotebook, an essential part of any scientist's inventory. I was able simply totype up my materials and methods from what I had written in my lab notebookwithout having to remember exactly how many moles of tetrachloroaurate I had usedsix months before. The bulk of my efforts on the paper were spent analyzing thedata and drawing conclusions.
Was finding the time to do all thisdifficult? How much did you work at a lab? Did you have to sacrifice your sociallife to work there?
It was certainly hard to find time during the schoolyear and I had to sacrifice a lot of my life, but it was definitely worth it anda lot of fun. Sometimes I had to stay at the lab late but luckily, lots of myfriends worked there too which made it easier. On average, I spent 40 hours aweek in the summer and eight hours a week once school started. My workload wasmanageable too, since I had finished most of my research by the end of thesummer.
Do you think all your work paid off? Would you do it againif you could?
Yes, all the long hours definitely paid off. Even if nothinghad come of it, I still wouldn't have regretted it because it was such a greatexperience. I learned a lot from my mistakes and found that planning is crucialto the success of any project: planning is 90% of the work, the other 10% isexecution. I really liked the research and want to continue incollege.
What did you like and dislike most about thework?
I think my favorite thing was that I was finding something new.Science in school is fun and all, but all the class experiments have beenrehashed over and over and the teacher knows the outcome. This often did nothappen in the lab. Sometimes even my mentor would have no idea what my resultsmeant. My findings were new, so it was exciting to be on the brink ofknowledge.
My least favorite part of my project was the learning curve. Ispent a lot of time spinning my wheels and exerting energy on things that hadalready been done just because I had not read the literature closely enough orhad misunderstood what my mentor said. Although this was frustrating, it did helpme gain a better grip of how research is done.
What advice can yougive to aspiring scientists?
I would urge you not to get involved in aresearch project like this unless you really love science. It's not for thefaint-hearted. If you want money or fame, it's not for you. I could have tradedall of those hours at the lab for a job making minimum wage and earned somemoney. You should do the project for the experience and the fun.
Also, tryto finish what you can over the summer. It's hard to balance time spent at thelab and schoolwork. Get things like college applications and school summer workdone in a timely fashion, unless you like sleep deprivation.
Whatare your future plans?
I hope to study biomedical engineering and go tomedical school, where I can do research and treat patientssimultaneously.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.