Shawnee Mission East High School senior sees science as a passion and profession

April 08, 2011

Kansas City Business Journal

Shawnee Mission East High School senior Prarthana Dalal has been entering science fairs since middle school, pursuing a love of science and research that already has clarified her career goals at age 17.

"I'd like to make my major biochemistry and molecular biology and then pursue clinical medicine and combine it with research," she said. "My ultimate goal is to be in academic medicine as opposed to private practice."

Dalal's dedication and hard work have netted three Grand Awards in a row at the Greater Kansas City Science and Engineering Fair and also selection as one of four students to compete in the Kansas State Science and Engineering Fair in Wichita April 1-2 as part of the Kansas BioGENEius Challenge competition.

A trip after her freshman year to India to visit her grandmother, who had been diagnosed with colon cancer, solidified Dalal's goals when she volunteered there with the Red Cross. She became interested in hemoglobin research and emailed several doctors in the Kansas City area to find a mentor. Dr. Kenneth Peterson, a professor and researcher at the University of Kansas Medical Center, had met her at a seventh-grade science fair and encouraged her to seek him out about future projects. He responded to Dalal's request, agreeing to let her use a laboratory and help her research hemoglobin disorders.

"Most of her written work, I always tell her: ‘Take a stab at this yourself, and then we'll work on it together,'" Peterson said. "But many times, I don't have to do anything editorially to it, which is pretty amazing. She performs a lot of times better than graduate students who already have completed four years of college and some coursework here on campus. She's going to make a splash somewhere in her career."

Dalal is included in ongoing research at the lab, and Peterson said she'll be a co-author on papers coming out in the future.

Dalal said she's been fortunate to have experiences that helped her narrow down what she's interested in at a young age.

"I think that my family really emphasizes education and really emphasizes the fact that you want to take something and delve deeper into it, to understand the depth and complexity of something you really enjoy," she said.

Dalal said she hasn't decided where she will attend college.

Angela Kreps, CEO of KansasBio, said students like Dalal are inspiring and need programs to encourage their growth in the science and engineering fields.

"I think it's just an amazing story about perseverance. Obviously, she's bright and brilliant, but in addition to that, she has a lot of genuine initiative," she said. "I am so inspired by not only the intellectual talent but by the breadth of the talent that is represented by all of the students who have been selected as BioGENEius Challenge finalists. Prarthana represents the next generation of innovation in scientific research. By the time she gets to graduate-level research, she may be the student who does find a cure for cancer. She's really chasing her own dream, and she's found a way to do that while she's still in high school."

Programs like BioGENEius and science and engineering fairs are necessary to keep Kansas and the U.S. competitive in the global economy, Kreps said.

"I think it's pretty clear that as you look at science test scores, you can see that we need to continue to focus on helping kids achieve in science," she said. "If we can harness that passion within kids, to invest in a future in scientific research, we have no idea what the future is going to look like. These young scientific minds will take us further than you can probably even imagine if we enable them to reach their potential. We need to find them early, surround them with mentors, and give them an opportunity to exceed expectations. They can do it."

For her Grand Award at the Greater Kansas City Science and Engineering Fair in March, Dalal will go on to compete at the 2011 International Science and Engineering Fair in May in Los Angeles.