Volume 16 - 2006
As the son of a medical school professor, Desh Mohan had spent time in a university research laboratory, but not working on his own research project.
Photo by Mike Woodruff
As a TAMS student at UNT, Desh Mohan placed fourth among the individual finalists in the 2005 Siemens Westinghouse Competition in Math, Science and Technology. His investigation of what helps worms survive without oxygen may have applications for humans.
In the fall of 2004, he entered the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science at the University of North Texas - a two-year residential program that allows talented students to enroll at UNT at the time they would normally be juniors and seniors in high school. In the laboratory of Pamela Padilla, assistant professor of biological sciences, Mohan began studying how the male nematode Caenorhabditis elegans - a roundworm less than one millimeter long - adapts to oxygen deprivation that is detrimental to humans. The worm is often used for biology research because it has some of the same physiological systems - feeding, nervous, muscle and reproductive systems - found in humans.
Padilla's five-year study to understand how cells and genes respond to a lack of oxygen, or anoxia, is being funded by the National Institutes of Health. In the summer of 2005, Mohan was working in the lab up to 40 hours a week after receiving a scholarship from TAMS to continue the research.
All those hours paid off. Last December, Mohan, who graduated from TAMS in May and is now a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, received a $30,000 scholarship for placing fourth among the individual finalists in the 2005 Siemens Westinghouse Competition in Math, Science and Technology.
Established in 1999 and funded by the Siemens Foundation, the competition recognizes research in mathematics and science by high school-age students.
"This may have a profound outcome on how we manage patients with stroke, heart disease and cancer." - Desh Mohan
Mohan explains that Caenorhabditis elegans can be male or hermaphrodite.
"It's known that when they're deprived of oxygen, they enter a reversible state of suspended animation," he says.
In Padilla's previous studies, adult hermaphrodites deprived of oxygen for 24 hours, 48 hours and 72 hours were found to have survival rates of approximately 90 percent, 10 percent and 3 percent, but Mohan says the response of their male counterparts to anoxia had yet to be characterized.
"I was trying to see what genes or molecules in worms help them to survive without oxygen, and if gender makes a difference," he says.
Mohan compared the hermaphrodite nematodes with male nemadotes, determining that after 48 hours, more than 95 percent of the males had survived oxygen deprivation, and after 72 hours, more than 80 percent were still alive.
"These results suggest that males have a different metabolic stress pathway that allows them to survive anoxia better," Mohan says.
He adds that the males reacted to the anoxic conditions much quicker than the hermaphrodites.
"It is possible that the quicker response of the males to anoxia exposure could be an evolutionary stress adaptation of the males," he says.
Mohan says a better knowledge of genes that control the survival mechanism of suspended animation in the worms could help scientists develop treatments for cellular damage caused by lack of oxygen. In humans, lack of oxygen can be caused by heart and lung diseases as well as loss of blood, and oxygen deprivation plays a key role in preventing cancerous tumors from responding to radiation and chemotherapy treatments.
"Identifying the molecular mechanisms and metabolic pathways encoding the anoxia response in the male worms could help us chart the critical anoxia-response pathways that may be important in human cells as well," he says.
"This may have a profound outcome on how we manage patients with stroke, heart disease and cancer."
Since TAMS opened its doors in 1988, students have been provided with research opportunities in UNT faculty members' laboratories. Many students start research the summer after their first two semesters at UNT with stipends provided by the academy to stay on campus and work in the labs, but Mohan volunteered to work in Padilla's lab during his first semester at TAMS.
Padilla says it was a "delight" to have Mohan in her laboratory.
"Throughout his time here at UNT, it was nice to see Desh develop his academic and scientific skills. He has the potential to be a world leader in the field and is quite remarkable academically," she says.
Mohan says his experience in Padilla's lab helped him change his career goals.
"I was going to just earn a medical degree. Now I may earn an M.D. and Ph.D. so I can do research in addition to being a doctor," he says.
He says the TAMS research program "is one of the greatest things TAMS offers its students."
"I can carry over what I've learned in the lab to any career," he says.
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