LEXINGTON, Ky. (June 30, 2022) — Earlier this year, three Lexington-native Paul Laurence Dunbar High School students earned first, second and third place overall at the 2022 Best of Fair regional science awards, all with training from University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center faculty members. The students — Sireesha Gutti, Saadhavi Maskey and Irving Morris — conducted high-level cancer-related research in biochemistry, cellular and molecular biology and animal sciences.
After their regional win, the three went on to represent Kentucky at the International Science Fair this past May in Atlanta.
In first place at the regional level came 11th grader Sireesha Gutti, with her project titled, “Sex Chromosomal Differences and Increased Leukemia Rates in Males,” which investigated reasons why men have a higher rate of incidence and mortality of leukemia cases over women. Gutti studied this with the help of advisor Ying Liang, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine.
For Gutti, this was more than just a science project. She entered the field of cancer research with a personal connection to cancer.
“The age standardized rate for leukemia incidence in males is 6.3%, whereas in females it is only 4.5%, and the mortality rate is higher in males than females as well,” Gutti said. “My father was diagnosed with leukemia, and he unfortunately eventually passed away after many hard years of battling the disease. This is what inspired me to get into cancer research, to honor my father.”
With the help of Liang, Gutti conducted a statistical analysis through various databases to investigate gene and chromosomal differences between males and females in relation to leukemogenesis, or the development of leukemia.
As a junior, she hopes to continue this project this summer and into next school year with the help of Liang and the lab at the UK Markey Cancer Center. This mentorship will help her to continue her head start on achieving her goal of becoming an oncologist one day.
“Working with Dr. Liang has been amazing,” Gutti said. “She was eager to help me with any questions I had along the way, no matter what stage of the project we were in.”
Liang was more than impressed by Gutti and is looking forward to continuing their project together this summer and into the next year.
“She is a very excellent student,” Liang said. “I was so impressed by what she was able to do herself, coming into this project. She is motivated, independent and curious. I feel very lucky to have her in the lab — and I know when she becomes a doctor, she is going to help many, many patients.”
Gutti’s friend and classmate, 12th grader Saadhavi Maskey, earned second place with his project that investigated breast cancer cell growth differences between racial groups. He studied with Kathleen O’Connor, Ph.D., professor of molecular and cellular biochemistry at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, and associate director of Cancer Education at the UK Markey Cancer Center.
“I had an interest in cancer research, and I knew that the University of Kentucky had a top-ranking cancer research center,” Maskey said. “So, I began looking at some different faculty members that could mentor me and I was drawn to Dr. O’Connor’s past publications with biochemistry.”
Maskey’s project investigated a surface cell protein, called integrin beta-4, which is known to enhance breast cancer proliferation. By looking at protein differences in different racial groups, he was able to study the potential cause of differences in breast cancer mortality rates between two races.
“There is a known mortality rate difference between racial groups when it comes to breast cancer,” Maskey said. “Black women tend to have higher breast cancer mortality rates than white women. And there is a difference in certain protein occurrences between these two races as well. So, in simple terms, my project was investigating whether this protein difference is impacting the growth of breast cancer cells, which could have a connection to mortality rate differences between races.”
Maskey knew that he wanted to become a doctor one day, but he now says that the experience working with the UK Markey Cancer Center has inspired him to potentially continue in the field of cancer research as well.
“I definitely am interested in continuing cancer research because I have realized how important this kind of research is to our communities,” Maskey said. “And Dr. O’Connor really eased me into research in a way that made me feel comfortable and made the experience so fun. She always made time to talk with me and help me, and that I feel was what made this experience so great.”
Another faculty member that helped mentor Maskey during this project was Lei Qi, Ph.D., research associate at Markey.
“My project wouldn’t have been possible without Dr. Qi,” Maskey said. “He guided me through all of it and is a great teacher. His ability to explain all the lab procedures that we did and why they work contributed greatly to my success with this project.”
This fall, Maskey plans to enter a pre-med fellowship program and continue medical research here in the Commonwealth.
“What I love about research is how you can become the first person in the world to discover something new,” Maskey said. “And then you get to share it far and wide and make a true impact. I find that moment to be so cool.”
In third place, 12th grader Irving Morris landed his spot with his project titled, “Investigating Differences in Regeneration Across Two Species of Planarian Flatworms.” This project was conducted alongside Elizabeth Duncan, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Kentucky College of Arts and Sciences.
“When I was looking into researchers from the University of Kentucky, Dr. Duncan’s research really caught my eye,” Morris said. “She does a lot of work in animal sciences and regeneration, which I found very interesting. So, when I reached out, she was generous enough to offer me a place to learn and complete a project using her lab at UK.”
Irving’s project investigated cell regeneration in animals. In terms of animal sciences and regeneration, there are very strong connections to cancer research.
“There are a lot of pathways that bridges regeneration and cancer biology together,” Morris said. “For example, stem cells are the types of cells that can allow an animal to regenerate with cell division and growth, which is really similar to cancer biology. We can also look at how stem cells respond to radiation in terms of regeneration, like how cancer cell growth is. So, there are many connections.”
Conducting high-level research in high school, like these students are, is an experience that will prepare the students in many ways. Morris recognizes how incredible it truly is to go into college with this kind of experience under his belt.
“Being able to conduct research in high school is such a privilege,” Morris said. “And being able to witness so much of the scientific process at such a young age, even before starting undergrad, prepares me so much — it prepares me to conduct research across all careers.”
Morris has many interests and talents, including being an avid dancer, but his current plan is to major in biology at the university he is attending in the fall. His experience at UK helped him land on this decision and helped him get into a program that is right for him.
“I have nothing but good things to say about my time studying with UK,” Morris said. “It was absolutely amazing from day one, even when I wasn’t able to come into the lab for many months due to COVID. Dr. Duncan was incredibly accommodating and attentive when it came to mentoring me. I learned a ton — everyone there was very generous, and I am so thankful for that.”
Duncan, who worked directly with Morris for the past two years on this project, said she is blown away by his dedication to research.
“You can tell he is such a mature student,” Duncan said. “It was a total pleasure to work with him. Most young people don’t appreciate that learning lesson of how persistence is key when it comes to research, but Morris does. He knows that his hard work will eventually pay off.”
The three students completed their projects to fulfill a requirement of the Math, Science and Technology Center (MSTC) program offered at Dunbar High School, for students who are particularly interested in STEM disciplines. These gifted students are required to complete a two-year, 360-hour capstone research project, and are given adequate time in their curriculum to study in the labs at UK.
And, with the success from the regional fair, Gutti, Maskey and Morris went on to represent Kentucky at the international science fair in Atlanta. They presented their projects among the very top high school researchers in the world.
“The international fair was so fun,” Maskey said. “It was crazy to represent my home state among some of the brightest students from across the world, and the connections I made through the events were awesome.”
This experience goes beyond preparing students for careers in STEM and cancer research. It helps shape these students and teaches them lessons that they will carry with them forever, even if they decide to shift their careers somewhere else one day.
“I think it takes such a special type of person to realize that no matter what you’re working on, it might not come easy, but that hard work will eventually pay off,” Duncan said. “And no matter what career you go into, that is truly a great lesson learned.”
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