At 21, Tulsi Patel has already spent four years conducting research in the field of genetics.
Patel is a 2009 graduate of the University of Georgia (UGA) Honors Program with a B.S. in Genetics. She is also an alumnus of the UGA Honors Program’s Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities (CURO)—a program that provides exceptional undergraduate students with opportunities to get paid and earn college credit for conducting research. This fall she will begin work on a doctorate in Genetics at Columbia University.

Patel was recently named a 2009 American Dream Fellow by the Merage Foundation. The American Dream Fellowship gives a grant of up to $20,000 to a young immigrant with stellar academic and leadership records to help him/her pursue his/her individual American dream through educational or professional advancement.

Patel is one of 12 recipients of the 2009 fellowship. An India native, she was born in Sambalpur, Orissa.

When she was 14, her family moved to the United States.

In the plant pathology laboratory of Scott Gold at UGA, Patel designed her own investigation focused on a fungal pathogen that could be used as a biological agent to control Chinese privet, a harmful exotic weed that is ubiquitous in Georgia.

Patel has presented her research at symposia in Austin, Texas; Hartford, Connecticut; and Costa Rica; as well as at UGA and NYU.

Congratulations on getting the Merage Fellowship.

Thank you!

How are you going to use the prize money?

The great thing about Merage is that there are really no strings attached as long as you use the money towards your educational and professional goals. Since Columbia will be paying my tuition, I will use the money towards living expenses and to help cover travel expenses related to my research.

When did you know you wanted to be a scientist?

When I was in the 6th grade in India, our science teacher explained to us Einstein’s theory of relativity. Although she was probably describing it in the most basic way possible, I still had no clue what she was talking about. But I understood that whatever this thing was, it was very important. I was fascinated by the idea that somebody had come up with a theory that I couldn’t understand even in its simplest form. And right then I thought that it would be really fun to do what Einstein had done: to come up with theories, to try to answer questions, to try to explain how things work.

I did briefly consider other careers—in high school I went through a graphic designer phase and a photographer-for-National-Geographic phase—but I never lost that fascination with science.

And then later in high school [in Acworth, Georgia], I took a genetics class, and my teacher, Wes McCoy, was just fantastic. It’s no exaggeration to say that he changed my life.

I’ve never heard of Chinese privet [the invasive weed]. Had you, before you started doing research on it?

(laughs) No, I’d never heard of it!

My mentor at the time, Scott Gold, had (and still has) a backyard full of Chinese privet. And he’s been trying for years to get rid of it. So his interest in Chinese privet is very personal.

After my first year when I’d learned some basic techniques, when I was thinking about potential research projects, Dr. Gold said, “I’m going to show you my backyard.” Once I learned about Chinese privet, I started noticing it everywhere. It really is everywhere in Georgia, and I couldn’t believe I’d never noticed it before. Even at the University of Georgia’s football stadium, the hedges are Chinese privet.

Everybody knows about kudzu, and everybody notices it because it doesn’t look like something you would want around. But Chinese privet is actually quite pretty, with white flowers, so you don’t think of it as a weed.

How did you move from plant genetics into human genetics?

Even during my first year, I knew that I eventually wanted to conduct medical research related to humans, but I found it pretty intimidating. I just felt more comfortable starting with plants.

In my classes at UGA and in high school, I’d learned a bit about stem cells, and I thought they were fascinating. Anything about developmental biology and early embryonic development is fascinating to me. Dr. Stice [the Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar] is one of the best stem-cell researchers around, so I went to a few talks he gave around campus. I contacted and met with him through CURO Associate Director Pamela Kleiber. He said he had an opening in the lab, and I’ve been doing human genetic research ever since. During my junior and senior years, I studied how neural progenitor cells can be used as neurons in potential treatments for neurodegenerative diseases.

Can you describe—from a researcher’s perspective but in layperson’s terms—the advantages of embryonic stem cells relative to adult stem cells?

Embryonic stem cells come from a three- or four-day-old embryo. These cells have not differentiated yet. They are just beginning their development and will turn into all of the different cell types in the body. And that’s their beauty. By exposing them to the right conditions, we can potentially differentiate them into any cell type and use them to understand and treat various cellular degenerative diseases.On the other hand, adult stem cells are already partially differentiated, and the number of potential cell types they can differentiate into is far lower. So the only way to produce particular types of cells in large numbers is to use embryonic stem cells.

Has Obama’s election been a boon to the field of embryonic stem cell research?

Yes. Under the Bush administration, all federal funding on new embryonic stem cell lines was banned. Obama lifted this ban very soon after taking office.

Let’s talk about your summer at NYU Medical Center. [As a participant in the Summer Undergraduate Research Program at the Sackler Institute of Graduate Biomedical Sciences at the New York University Medical Center, Patel conducted research in developmental genetics under Jeremy Nance.]

Dr. Nance’s lab at the Sackler Institute of Graduate Biomedical Sciences is amazing. They were studying early embryonic development using C. elegans, which is a worm that grows to about one millimeter in length. C. elegans are frequently used in developmental research because they are transparent and because their embryonic development has been meticulously mapped.

Wait a minute. In saying it’s transparent, do you mean physically?

(laughs) Yes, the skin of the C. elegans is transparent. So with a microscope you can actually see what’s going on inside the creature!

I was studying early embryonic development, specifically cell polarity. Proteins in cells, especially in early embryonic cells, are not distributed uniformly within a cell. Some are spread so that there’s more present on the dorsal side, or more on the ventral side. And some are distributed only on the cell membrane. An uneven distribution of proteins within a cell results in cell polarity. This does not necessarily have to do with electrical charge. Here the term “polarity” simply indicates the uneven distribution of proteins.

Down the road, what are some potential practical applications of this research?

If we can understand the problem of the improper polarity in epithelial cells, we can prevent or reduce the spread of cancer.

Epithelial cells line the surface of many organs. These cells require a certain polarity in order to enable cell adhesion—the ability of cells to stick together. In many forms of cancer, the polarity of epithelial cells is incorrect such that the cells lose their ability to stick together. Cancerous cells that lose this ability can migrate, and this can lead to the spread of cancer from one part of the body to another.

Cell polarity is also important in basic embryonic development. If embryonic cells are not properly polarized and don’t have proper cell adhesion, then cells in the embryo will move around incorrectly, and this can adversely affect the development of the embryo.

How have you benefited from presenting your research?

Presenting is one of my favorite parts of research. I love talking about this stuff.

I learn a lot just by preparing for a presentation. It’s a good exercise to try to summarize everything I’ve done in a year into a single presentation. It really forces me to make sure I understand everything.

My first presentation was through CURO at UGA. It was a lot of fun because many of my friends were also presenting. And we’d informally talked about our work, but that was the first time I heard them present and understood their work on a deeper level. So, it also served as a good introduction into other fields of research.

Much of your current research has to do with neurodegenerative diseases. Do you have a personal connection with this cause?

No and yes. I don’t have any close friends or family members with neurodegenerative diseases. But I’ve seen enough people who suffer from them to know that this work is very important to me. When I see somebody with Huntington’s or Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, it’s heartbreaking whether I know the person or not.

Ranjit Souri (rjsouri [at] gmail [dot] com) teaches classes in improvisation, comedy writing, and creative non-fiction in Chicago.