Indian American high schooler wins award for using biocomputational methods to understand causes of mpox’s heightened infectivity
Saathvik Kannan, a 17-year-old Indian American senior at Hickman High School Columbia, Missouri, has won one of two Regeneron Young Scientist Awards of $50,000 in the 2023 Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (Regeneron ISEF).
Kannan won the award in the world’s largest global pre-college science and engineering competition for using biocomputational methods to understand the causes of heightened infectivity in the disease mpox after it reemerged in 2022, according to an ISEF press release.
Read: Five Indian Americans in Regeneron Science Talent Search finals (January 25, 2023)
Saathvik’s approach, named Bioplex, uses a combination of machine learning and three-dimensional comparative protein modeling to decode structures like those that enable the mpox virus to replicate.
This allowed him to identify the mutations in the virus that likely made it more infectious as well as other mutations that could make it resistant to antibiotics. Saathvik believes scientists will also be able to apply Bioplex to future outbreaks of other viruses.
“I was overjoyed and incredibly excited!” Saathvik wrote in an email to the Columbia Daily Tribute about the prize. “I felt that it reflected our work with Dr. Singh’s mentorship and guidance over the last few years culminating in my project from this year.”
Kannan credited his mentor, Kamlendra Singh, an assistant professor of veterinary pathobiology at the University of Missouri. “He was like any of my teachers at school, teaching me every little bit in biology or areas where I was unsure,” Saathvik wrote. “’Thanks’ is simply not enough,” he added.
His project, undertaken during the height of the outbreak, didn’t predict its quick fade, but it wasn’t meant to, Kannan wrote.
“The research provides a basis for understanding several new outbreaks,” Kannan wrote. “As we have realized with Covid-19 and even mpox, any virus can go from dormancy to a full resurgence in a very short period. So, there is potential for another outbreak of mpox, where this research could be used.”
His research can help to better understand viruses like mpox, Kannan wrote.
Two other Indian American students, Rishabh Ranjan, 17, and Gopalaniruddh Tadinada, 17, of Louisville, Kentucky, received the H. Robert Horvitz Prize for Fundamental Research of $10,000 for building a custom, automated system to detect gastrointestinal cancer before serious symptoms appear.
The team’s system combines robotics and machine learning to analyze blood samples to identify healthy patients, as well as those with pancreatic, colorectal or hepatic cancers, in only three hours at an estimated cost of only $300.
Detecting these cancers before they metastasize could make treatment much simpler and more effective.
“Congratulations to the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair 2023 winners,” said Maya Ajmera, President and CEO, Society for Science and Executive Publisher, Science News.
“I am humbled by the creativity and determination demonstrated by these exceptional students and proud of all they have accomplished with their outstanding research abilities. Together, these students from various academic disciplines and geographies are solving the world’s most intractable problems.”
The top winners were honored during two award ceremonies on May 18 and May 19. In total, nearly $9 million was awarded to the finalists, who were evaluated based on their projects’ creativity, innovation and depth of scientific inquiry.
The competition featured over 1,600 young scientists representing 49 states and 64 countries across the world.
Read: 70 Indian Americans among Regeneron Science Talent Search toppers (January 7, 2022)