Teen Skepchick Interviews: Shree Bose
This post is part of the Teen Skepchick Interviews series, where TS writers talk with amazing women scientists and skeptics about life, the universe, and everything.
At the first ever Google Global Science Fair, Shree Bose of Forth Worth, Texas, not only won the 17- to 18-year-old category, she won the Grand Prize, which meant a $50,000 Google scholarship, a trip to the Galapagos Islands, a trip to CERN, two LEGO awards, and a subscription to Scientific American for her school. Since then, she’s traveled, given talks, been interviewed all over the media, and met President Obama—twice.
(Just for contrast—the biggest brush with fame I had when I was 17 was meeting someone whose friend’s cousin’s grandma once had Bob Dylan over for dinner. So, yeah . . .)
I caught up with Shree after she’d returned from the Galapagos and just before she headed off to the National Institutes of Health for her summer internship. In this interview, she talks about everything from the research that won the Google Science Fair to the research that, well, didn’t win much of anything besides laughs.
How did she get interested in science, and cancer research specifically? How, as a teenager, did she even have the opportunity to work in a cancer-research lab? What was it like to meet the president, the MythBusters, and Bill Nye? And where is she headed next? Read on.
What project did you win the Google Science Fair with?
In a nutshell, my project was on drug resistance in ovarian cancer. Every year, about 21,000 women all over the United States are diagnosed with ovarian cancer, the fifth leading cause of cancer deaths among women. One of the most common treatment methods, chemotherapy, involves treating patients with high doses of chemicals to kill off cancer cells. Cisplatin is one such drug used often to treat ovarian cancer; however, patients often develop a resistance to the drug and have a recurrence of tumors, which no longer can be treated with the same drug.
My research basically showed a huge difference in what a particular cell protein, AMP kinase, did in resistant cells versus sensitive cells, which suggests that this protein might be doing something in the cells to make them resistant. The research suggests that when a patient becomes resistant, she can be treated with a protein inhibitor and cisplatin, and chemotherapy can be improved. That conclusion is not only huge for future treatment but also for future research, and it was really exciting to work on.
What other applications are there for your discovery and this research?
Knowing that this protein is doing something in the cells to make them resistant may lead to some future research on how to specifically prevent the cells from ever developing the resistance in the first place.
What got you interested in cancer research specifically?
The summer after my freshman year, my grandfather passed away due to cancer, and I just became really determined to do cancer research. I had also just finished freshman-level biology and realized I loved cellular biology, so I started emailing professors in my area, asking to work under their supervision in their labs.
I got rejected by most of the professors I emailed, except for Dr. Alakananda Basu at the UNT Health Science Center in Fort Worth, who allowed me to come in and work under her guidance for two summers. Under her supervision, I did my first project on breast cancer. For the ovarian cancer project, she assigned Savitha Sridharan, a graduate student, to keep track of me.
Have you been well received and taken seriously as a teenager doing research? Have you encountered discrimination as a young woman in science?
I’ve actually been taken pretty seriously as a teenager doing research. I’ve gotten to present my research to NIH directors, and I’m actually interning at the National Institutes of Health this summer, so it’s nice to see that my research is taken seriously and that there are people who believe in my research abilities. I haven’t faced that much discrimination being a woman in science, and I hope that I can be a part of that shift into more young women getting interested in science and engineering.
How important were mentors to your interest and success in science?
I’m so blessed to have had Dr. Basu and Savitha as mentors; from the beginning, they have been patient while constantly challenging me and teaching me. Their guidance has been absolutely invaluable in this entire process, and I can truly say I would not be here if it was not for them. I was very lucky to have such incredible mentors.
My brother was also really important in developing my passion from a young age, from explaining how atoms worked when we were both little to constantly inspiring me with everything he does as a scientist and as my older brother.
Have you always been interested in science?
I actually started off as the writing kid of the family. I think my brother constantly explaining concepts to me in a way that made me really interested was what sparked me when I was little. I’ve loved science ever since, and it’s taken me further than I could imagine.
What other science research and projects have you done, formally and informally?
Wooo. This is a long one. Sorry.
My journey with science fairs starts in second grade. There was this program there called Invention Convention, where the teachers told us to come up with a new invention that would somehow benefit the world around us. So I came up with the idea of turning spinach blue to make it more appetizing to little kids who didn’t want to eat their green vegetables. How that would benefit the world, I don’t exactly know, but I do know that my parents bought me a spinach plant and I injected it with blue food coloring and then promptly forgot about it. I left that spinach plant in a cabinet in our house, didn’t water it, and carried this dried, withered spinach plant into class and presented that as my first science project. People laughed at it. But that was my start.
In fourth grade, I realized science was really cool. My older brother, Pinaki Bose, had been doing science fairs with environmental science, and I had the chance to travel with him and my parents to DC to the Discovery Channel Young Scientist Challenge (DCYSC) finals, where he was one of the top 40 national finalists. Since my brother had always been the person who constantly interested me in science, it was incredible to go along with him.
I got to meet the MythBusters and Michael Phelps. I realized that science and science fairs could take me really far if I worked hard and tried my best. My brother was selected as one of the top 40 the next year too, a finalist for two consecutive years—a very rare honor.
With that, I decided that I wanted to stick with science, so in fifth grade, I did another Invention Convention project, about remote-controlled trash cans to help the handicapped who struggled with pushing their bins out to the curb. I built this model by taking the top off a remote-controlled car and putting a model trash can on top, and people could pilot the bin around. That was the first project I won an award with, and right after that I entered middle school.
In middle school, I started doing science fairs instead of Invention Convention. In eighth grade, I worked on an environmental science project about creating a new environmentally friendly, recycled material that could be used in railroad ties and outdoor furniture and such. At the start of freshman year, I entered high school at FWCD and found out that I was selected as one of the top 30 finalists in the Society for Science and Public’s Middle School National Program, for the project I had done as an eighth grader. That was the first time I got to compete representing FWCD, and during the finals competition in Washington DC, I was the student-elected speaker and got to give a speech at the final awards.
That summer, after freshman-level biology with Ms. Hamilton, my grandfather passed away. At that point I had seen the level of work that students my age could already do (being a finalist in the SSP program). I was already interested in biology, and I had a field that I was particularly interested in—cancer. So that’s when I found a mentor in Dr. Alakananda Basu at the UNTHSC.
Was your family supportive of your interest in science?
My parents have always been supportive of my interest in science, whether it was buying me a spinach plant that I could inject with blue food coloring and then eventually kill by not watering, or helping me put together boards and project reports. They’ve been there for all the ups and downs and have picked me up at the lowest points and pushed me higher during the highest. My brother has been my biggest mentor, and I really couldn’t have done anything without him. I’m just very lucky to have such a supportive, loving family.
What was it like meeting President Obama?
AMAZING. I’ve gotten to meet President Obama twice at this point, once when the Google Science Fair winners were invited to the Oval Office and again when I got to present at his White House Science Fair, and each time, I was impressed with how genuinely excited he was to see children and youth doing science. Honestly, when I first turned around and he was opening the door to the Oval Office, I had this moment of “oh my goodness, this is so surreal.” But he knew my name and research, and he was really excited and involved in learning about what we wanted to do in the future. That sort of energy is something I want to see in future presidents.
Bill Nye is so freakishly awesome. I grew up watching his shows, and I may have sang his own theme song back to him, but I couldn’t believe I was sitting next to him. The greatest thing was to see how he really was passionate about using the platform of his show to inspire young children in science. Plus, he’s really funny in real life.
Have you gone to see CERN yet?
I haven’t actually taken my trip to CERN yet, but I’m going this summer with my brother and my parents. I believe they have some pretty exciting stuff planned, and since I understand very little about quantum physics and all of the amazing research going on there, I plan to be asking a lot of questions. But I’m so excited to meet researchers in Geneva and hopefully see the LHC!
What was the Galapagos like?
The Galapagos was the most beautiful trip I’ve ever been on. We saw incredible biodiversity—with these species that are present nowhere else in the world, like giant tortoises and blue-footed boobies.
The Galapagos are special for several reasons. One is that they’re so isolated, a place where humans haven’t had a great impact on the natural environments. Another is the biodiversity. This island chain lies at the crossroads of three currents that carried in a wide variety of species—in fact, there are lots of species here that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.
A third is its scientific history. The Galapagos are where Darwin, during his 19 days on land there, noticed the incredible diversity of species and came up with his theory of natural selection and evolution. After ten days there, I realized all these special things about the Galapagos and decided to add one more—inspiration to keep exploring the amazing things our world has to offer and so much more beyond.
I have actually committed to Harvard for my undergraduate just recently. After an undergraduate degree, I would love to become a medical researcher by pursuing an M.D.- Ph.D. degree. For me, combining the research aspect of coming up with effective treatments and the clinical aspect of actually treating patients would be absolutely the best of both worlds, and a career path I would really enjoy.
What do you think could help more young women get engaged in and be successful in research in science, math, and engineering?
I think one of the first ways to get young women interested in STEM is to teach the subjects in a way that inspires. I was a panelist in a PBS NewsHour piece recently, and we were talking about why women are so much more involved in biology and environmental science instead of technology and engineering and math, and I think a large part of that is about how women want to be able to have a direct impact. I think the biggest way to get women involved in STEM is to show them that they can have that sort of direct impact.