Teen’s smarts land her prestigious scholarship

The lower portion of Shalini Ramanan's résumé looks like that of many 17-year-old Richland girls - she likes swimming, dancing, music and movies.

But few teens - or adults, really - share her list of academic achievements.

Before Shalini graduated from Hanford High School last spring, she took just about every Advanced Placement class offered there, was accepted into the Young Women in Science program and participated in state science competitions.

She recently added two more accolades to the list - Ivy League student and recipient of a scholarship for "profoundly intelligent young people."

Shalini received a $10,000 scholarship from the Davidson Institute for discovering how a component of the spice turmeric can be used to fight cardiovascular disease, including strokes and heart attacks. She is using the money to pay tuition at Brown University in Providence, R.I., where she started classes this week.

Turmeric is a spice from Southeast Asia used in many curry powders. It also is used to color food stuffs yellow.

But practitioners of Eastern medicine know that turmeric can do a lot more than add flavor and color to food. Whenever Shalini caught a cold as a kid, her mother reached for the spice rack.

"Turmeric milk cleared my throat," she said. "That's how I first learned about (its) benefits."

Being an exceptional student who had taken advanced chemistry and biology at Hanford High - and the daughter of a pharmacist - Shalini suspected turmeric could do even more.

In her junior year, she embarked on a two-year research project that would make her one of 18 Davidson scholars nationwide this year.

Shalini focused on the treatment of cardiovascular diseases, the "world's largest killers," according to the World Health Organization.

Using bioinformatics - the marriage of computer science and bio-medical research - she scoured hundreds of research articles to see which connections had been established between a chemical component of turmeric and certain genes that are known to play a part in blocking arteries.

After working on the project from home during her junior year, Shalini went to the University of Wyoming for the summer 2010. Sreejayan Nair, a family friend, directs the university's Center for Cardiovascular Research and Alternative Medicine.

With access to the center's sophisticated equipment, the teen proved she could hold her own with the scientists.

Researchers at the center were exploring the use of curcumin, a component of turmeric, to suppress the uncontrolled growth of certain cells, which cause blocked arteries and some cancers.

But Shalini identified four genes related to the cell growths and discovered that bisdemethoxycurcumin - another component of turmeric - is more effective than curcumin in reducing these genes.

She returned to Richland and continued her research from home, making sure the turmeric component wouldn't affect other genes and trigger unwanted consequences.

Shalini took her project to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in San Jose, Calif. While there, she noticed a booth for the Davidson Institute, a nonprofit that supports gifted students.

The institute chose her as one of 18 students to receive a scholarship this year. Not all are young scientists - the nonprofit also supports students' pursuits in literature or music, for example.

And despite Shalini's scientific achievement - which the nonprofit said "may help design and characterize novel drug molecules" - she is not planning on a career in biology or medicine.

Shalini's majoring in computer science at Brown and is looking toward business or economics when she heads to graduate school, she said.

The Richland girl who made a contribution toward treating a deadly disease said she would like to be the business manager of a computer programming company one day.