When St. Francis High School student Shubha Raghvendra was recognized by the City Council last week for a research project which has won her awards at county, state and international science competitions, Mayor Jac Siegel couldn't pronounce the title of her research paper: "Effects of Diabetes Mellitus on Vasculogenesis Capacities of Mesenchymal Stem Cells."
Raghvendra, the 17-year-old daughter of two computer engineers, owes her success not just to her knack for science, but her social networking skills. For several years now, doctors and researchers at Stanford have given her valuable guidance.
Raghvendra has been competing in science fairs since she was in first grade, when she examined how hard it was to blow up a balloon in a bathtub. The project took only an hour but she was hooked. In middle school she realized that science projects could have a greater impact on the world, and it was about that time that she began looking for some mentors in academia.
"I contacted the people whose work really piqued my interest," she said.
Raghvendra first contacted Dr. Geoff Gurtner, a Stanford plastic surgeon and researcher "on the cutting edge" of regenerative medicine, when she was 14. But because of university rules, Raghvendra had to wait until she was 16 to start doing research on campus. Other mentors include Dr. Jason Glotzbach and Dr. Michael Sorkin, both researchers at Stanford.
With their help, this year Raghvendra was able to demonstrate that diabetes hurts the ability of certain bone marrow cells to heal wounds in the body, which could contribute to complications, including heart attacks and strokes, both of which diabetics have higher rates of. Someday, Raghvendra's work could help in the treatment of diabetics, including five of her uncles who suffer from the disease.
Raghvendra said she designed and ran many of the tests that eventually confirmed what had been a hunch of her mentors. Slowly several pieces fell into place that proved their theory. She stressed that she wasn't the only one who made it happen, but she did enough to convince panels of judges who grilled her at each science competition she entered that it was worthy of an award.
"These are really busy people," she said of her mentors. "A lot of it had to be self-directed on my part. It was a role that demanded a lot of independence."
At the 2011 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, which draws students from 60 countries, Raghvendra topped the health and medical sciences category. and placed third overall. The project won fourth place in its category in the California state science fair and the grand prize for medicine and health category in the Santa Clara Valley Science and Engineering Fair.
What's next for Raghvendra? She wants to be a doctor, and as one might expect, she hopes to get into Stanford University.