Budding scientist only Texan in Siemens Westinghouse finals

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Last summer, while other 17-year-olds were working as lifeguards, camp counselors, sales clerks or wait staff, Desh Mohan spent up to 40 hours a week in a University of North Texas research laboratory, studying male nematodes, a type of worm. He studied how the nematodes adapt to oxygen deprivation that is detrimental to humans.

"When you put the worms in an environment with no oxygen, they go into suspended animation," says Mohan, a second-year student at UNT's Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science. "I was trying to see what genes or molecules in worms help them to survive without oxygen, and if gender makes a difference. Nematodes have two genders -- males and hermaphrodites -- and males tend to survive better without oxygen."

The hours spent in the lab has paid off for Mohan, the son of Meena and Chandra Mohan of Flower Mound. He became one of six national finalists in the 2005 Siemens Westinghouse Competition in Math, Science & Technology when he was named the individual winner of the competition's Southwestern Regional Competition, held at the University of Texas at Austin Nov. 4-5.

The Siemens Westinghouse Competition was established in 1999 and is funded by the Siemens Foundation. The competition recognizes high school research in mathematics and science. Students may submit individual projects or projects conducted with one or two other students. Those with individual projects and those on teams compete separately.

Mohan entered his individual research on nematodes in the competition in September. From more than 1,000 entrants, he was chosen as one of 334 semifinalists in the nation, and one of 49 from Texas, on Oct. 21. On Oct. 31, he was chosen as one of 14 regional finalists for the Southwestern Regional Competition.

For being his regional competition's individual winner, Mohan received a $3,000 scholarship and a silver medal. He and the winning team of students from the Southwestern Regional Competition -- two students from Arizona -- will represent their region and present their research at the National Finals Dec. 1-5 at New York University. Mohan will be the only Texas student in the finals.

The top individual and the top team in the National Finals each receive $100,000 scholarships. The other five individuals and teams receive scholarships ranging from $10,000 to $50,000.

Mohan attended Marcus High School in Flower Mound for two years, but left after his sophomore year to attend the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science is a two-year residential program at the University of North Texas that allows talented students to complete their freshman and sophomore years of college while earning the equivalent of high school diplomas. Students enroll in the academy following their sophomore year in high school, live in a UNT residence hall and attend UNT classes with college students. After two years, they enroll at UNT or another university to finish their bachelor's degrees.

In October 2004, shortly after entering TAMS, Mohan asked Pamela Padilla, UNT assistant professor of biological sciences, if he could work in her laboratory. Padilla already had another TAMS student working her laboratory -- Jemma Alarcon, who was named a semifinalist in the 2004 Siemens Westinghouse Competition and received a full scholarship to attend Johns Hopkins University after she graduated from TAMS in May 2005.

"Upon meeting Desh, I was impressed by his maturity as well as his ability to ask good scientific questions and analyze data," Padilla says. "Being a mentor to a student like Desh is what makes UNT a good place to conduct research and teach. He is not only intelligent and hard working, but an absolute joy to have in the lab."

Mohan worked part time in Padilla's laboratory for the rest of the academic year. He received a $4,000 stipend from the TAMS Summer Research Program to work full time in the lab during the summer. He is continuing the research part time this fall semester.

Mohan says he hopes his nematode research will lead to better understanding of anoxia -- the absence of oxygen in inhaled gases or in arterial blood and/or in the tissues -- in humans.

Anoxia, he says, "is the key to development of several diseases, including cardiac, pulmonary, and cerebral dysfunction, and cancerous cells in oxygen-deprived tumors."

TAMS Dean Richard Sinclair called Mohan "an outstanding young scientist who is able to balance a rigorous course load with research and leadership in extracurricular activities."

"He has taken advantage of all of the positive opportunities TAMS has to offer high-achieving students," Sinclair says.

A National Merit semifinalist, Mohan belongs to several TAMS organizations. He is a member of the National Honor Society and Helping Other People Everywhere, a community service organization. He is also the vice president and one of the founders of Living In A Free Environment, an organization dedicated to providing a safe environment for students at TAMS.

He is applying to Stanford University to finish his bachelor's degree after graduating from TAMS in May. Mohan plans to eventually attend medical school and earn both a medical degree and a doctoral degree for a career in research.

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