y parents, who are from Kolkata, India, named me Shree — for the goddess of wealth. We'll see! My first interest was learning English, but my older brother, Pinaki, got me hooked on science. He tried explaining atoms to me when I was 6 years old. I didn't have a clue what he was talking about, but he was so excited. I watched him enter science fairs and decided I wanted to do the same thing.
In second grade I entered the science fair world at the Invention Convention. My teacher told us to come up with an idea that no one had thought of. I didn't like green vegetables, so I thought I would dye one blue to make it more attractive to kids. I injected a spinach plant with food coloring. Unfortunately, that didn't go so well. I came to school with a withered and horrible looking plant. I remember the other kids snickering. I think I got a passing grade for effort. But I still had fun.
In fifth grade, I decided to create a remote-controlled garbage can because I hated taking out the trash and thought it would be useful for handicapped people. I took the top off a remote-controlled car and fitted a garbage can on the wheels. It was the coolest thing I'd ever done. I still have the car, and I won the science fair.
It never occurred to me that girls didn't 'do' science. My schools never participated in science fairs so I did the research and prepared the entries myself. Everyone made a big deal about football and athletics with pep rallies. But when someone won a science competition, there would be a short PA announcement that no one paid attention to.
When I wasn't doing science I was swimming. Since age 8 I've been swimming competitively. At a race, the light flashes and the buzzer goes off. I hear the crowd screaming and then I'm in midair. When I hit the water everything just goes silent. It's awesome.
became interested in cancer research in high school and sent emails to professors in my region looking for a sponsor. Everyone said "no" except Dr. Alakananda Basu at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth. I worked on a breast cancer project the summer after my freshman year and took it to the science fair. I was crushed when I didn't win anything, but I realized that I was doing something I liked, and wasn't in it simply to win. I returned to Dr. Basu's lab the following summer. That's when I began to help design experiments for an ovarian cancer project. I was 16 and had just learned to drive. So every morning I drove myself to the lab.
I studied why women become resistant to a chemotherapy drug called cisplatin that is effective against ovarian cancer cells. This is a huge problem for women who have a recurrent cancer. After several false starts, I found the answer in a cellular energy protein known as AMPK, or adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase. When AMPK was paired with cisplatin at the beginning of treatment, the combination diminished the effectiveness of cisplatin. But added later on — when the cancer cells were growing resistant — the AMPK worked to maintain the effectiveness of cisplatin. So this drug continued killing the malignant cells, at least in cell cultures. So this was an important breakthrough for chemotherapy resistance treatment and future research. This was such an exciting discovery.
In 2011, I entered the first-ever Google Science Fair. I had to design a website, which I'd never done before. So I pulled an all-nighter three weeks before the deadline. When I was chosen as one of 15 international finalists, I flew to Google headquarters in Mountain View, CA. I presented my project looking down a long conference table with 12 of the greatest minds in science. It was an exhilarating, intimidating, OMG moment for me. My introductory video malfunctioned, so I just talked and hoped I didn't sound too crazy.
When my name was announced as the winner I was handed this big Lego trophy. Time stopped. It hit me: it's been 12 years of science fairs leading to this big trophy. Twelve years of missing class trips, not going out with my friends and rarely having any down time to relax. This moment made all of that — the hours in the lab, the failures, the rejections — worth it. This was the moment when I realized I was doing something that I loved. This was my own personal pep rally.
Science is abstract; then I met real life.
In May I was invited to speak at a Teal Tea, an event for ovarian cancer survivors. I stood on a stage in the community room above Sally's Furniture Store in Grapevine Texas, with more than 100 women looking at me, most wearing teal, the color for ovarian cancer. I threw away my prepared remarks as I gazed at all those expectant faces. I told them the story of my blue spinach experiment. I guess even then I loved the color teal! Afterwards many women said I had given them hope. It's one thing to be in a lab looking at cancer cells under a microscope, but it's a far more powerful experience to come face to face with a woman who's battled ovarian cancer for 20 years. It touched my heart.
In the lab it's easy to forget the impact on real people. Meeting these extremely strong women,
who had been to hell and back, made me stop and think:
whatever science has meant to me, it means more to them. What more could a scientist want?
I guess my parents named me well.
embodies the promise of Title IX — a law which keeps doors open for young women to pursue the STEM disciplines — science, technology, engineering and math. This summer, Shree is working as an intern in a laboratory at the National Institutes of Health pursuing liver cancer research. In the fall, she will begin her freshman year at Harvard University. Nobel judges, take note.