Westover Student Spends Summer as Neuroscience Intern at Columbia

Maya '19 spent her summer at Columbia University exploring her passion of science through an internship working in the Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering.

Growing up in a family full of doctors, Maya Kumar '19 has always had a budding interest in science and how the brain operates. This past summer, she was able to explore those interests through a much greater lens: an eight-week-long internship at Columbia University in New York working in the Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering in the lab on a project entitled, "Nanoemulsions for Brain Therapeutics."

"Basically I designed and conducted experiments to do," Maya said of her internship. "The objective of the project was to design these nanoemulsions -- oil and water nanoemulsions -- that would carry drugs, that would bring those drugs to the brain and be able to cross the blood brain barrier. Because right now, the blood brain barrier is very tight, and pretty rigid so not a lot of things can pass through it, and so it's really hard to deliver drugs to the brain. But hopefully by using these nanoemulsions you can break the droplet size to such a small size that it's able to cross the blood brain barrier and deliver the drugs to the brain."

Though it's a complex topic, Maya said she's always been intrigued by neuroscience, something she may want to pursue in college. She said that during her college visit to Columbia last spring she spoke to Professor Ponisseril Somasundaran, who is the professor of Mineral Engineering at Columbia about possible summer internships.

"Taking AP Chemistry and the whole WISE (Women In Science and Engineering) Curriculum helped me be not as nervous for that first day," she said. "After that day, I just kept reading, reviewing, and I would ask questions."

Maya explained that her dad, Dr. Kumar Subramanyan, received his Masters and PhD in Surface and Colloid Chemistry at Columbia, and used to work under Somasundaran.

"I told him (Professor Somasundaran) I was interested in neuroscience and asked if he knew of any opportunities that they have at Columbia for high school students over the summer," Maya said. "He said he had an opening in his lab dealing with the blood brain barrier."

Maya said she had to apply for the internship by sending in her resume, explain why she wanted it, and explain her interest in the topic.

"I only found out I got it right before I started; I was still on vacation," Maya said with a smile. "I came home on a Friday and started on Monday."

Over the summer, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, Maya, who is 16 years old and resides in Southbury, would head to Columbia for six hours and work in the lab. A typical day would start at 10 a.m. where she'd check in with Dr. Partha Patra and get instructions for the day. For most of the summer it was just her, Dr. Patra, and sometimes Somasundaran in the lab.

"Dr. Patra would tell me this is what we're going to do today, the equipment you're going to use, this is what you need to figure out, and then just go. I basically would come up with how to do it, come up with the right measurements, what to use, and then I would obviously tell him first, and then do it, and write down my observations."

The only high school student in the department, Maya said she never felt intimidated. She credits her courses at Westover for preparing her.

"Taking AP Chemistry and the whole WISE (Women In Science and Engineering) Curriculum helped me be not as nervous for that first day," she said. "After that day, I just kept reading, reviewing, and I would ask questions."

Some of the highlights of the summer for Maya included traveling to other laboratories on campus and working and observing, learning how to use different equipment, and how to do independent research. Maya was also able to present at the Fall 2018 NSF IUCR (National Science Foundation Industry-University Cooperative Research) Center of Particulate and Surfactant Systems Meeting at Columbia. Here she gained valuable feedback and connections in the field.

Right now, Maya is in the process of writing a paper on her findings that will be submitted for publication before the end of the year.

"I'm hoping to continue going to Columbia (on the weekends) until I finish up the work required to complete the paper," Maya said.

While Maya explained that she did receive a WISE credit for the internship, the experience she gained was an endorsement for? a hopeful future in the field.

"It's definitely confirmed that I'm interested in research, because I've never had the experience of working a lab everyday, but after this experience, I know this is what I like to do, and it's so much fun," she said.