The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

She’s 17 years old and already helping patients. Meet the winner of one of the country’s most prestigious science fairs.

Indrani Das displays her project, which explores the death of neurons, at the Regeneron Science Talent Search last week. Das won the top prize and $250,000 for the project. (Courtesy of Society for Science and the Public)
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Indrani Das has been fascinated with brain injuries since her freshman year of high school, when she learned that their effects can be devastating and irreversible.

Later, her fascination evolved into a full-fledged research project. Das, now 17 and a senior at the Academy for Medical Science Technology in Hackensack, N.J., explored how brain damage occurs, examining a process called astrogliosis, which can lead to the excess production of a toxin that can damage neurons. If she and other researchers could better understand how brain damage occurs, perhaps they could figure out how to slow or reverse the process.

“My work centers on repairing the behavior of supporting cells to prevent neuron injury and death,” Das said. “It was really that shock of what it can do to a person that pushed me to work” on research involving brain injuries.

Das’s project, which explores the role of brain cells called astrocytes in the death of neurons, was awarded the top prize and $250,000 at the Regeneron Science Talent Search.

Das bested thousands of high school scientists from across the country. The talent search selected 40 finalists, who traveled last week to D.C., where a selection committee grilled them on their work and put them through the wringer, testing their grasp of scientific concepts and their ability to solve problems.

Four of the finalists were from the Washington area: Prathik Naidu of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County; David Rekhtman  of Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda; and Sambuddha Chattopadhyay and Rohan Dalvi, both of Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring.

Naidu placed seventh, taking home $70,000 for his project, which  created 3-D models of the genetics of cancer cells, using a computer program he built.

The Science Talent Search, previously sponsored by Intel, is one of the best-known and among the most competitive science fairs for young researchers. This year, the talent search gave out $1.8 million to 40 finalists, much of which will go to cover college tuition for the budding researchers.

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Maya Ajmera,  president and chief executive of the Society for Science and the Public, said the finalists are often well-rounded and driven by their desire to make the world a better place, an altruism that is reflected in extracurricular activities.

Das, who hails from Orendell, N.J., recently became a certified emergency medical technician and is already working with patients, helping to transport them to hospitals. While she is deeply fascinated by research, she also hopes to become a practicing physician so she can work with patients.

“I would say my happiest time is when I’m with my patients,”  Das said. “I love connecting with people and understanding how I can help them. It keeps me human.”

She plans to use the prize money to help pay for college and medical school.