Salk Institute for Biological Studies: InsideSalk

'Jeopardy!' and Spelling Bee Champ Discovers the Life of a Scientist at Salk

Apparently it takes more than wining a nationaly televised spelling contest to be recognized with a personalized Wikipedia page. At least that's what Anurag Kashyap discovered in October when he went to the Web site and launched a search for his name. His inquiry resulted in a cold response: "Person not notable." (And not to be confused with an Indian film director of the same name!)

Of course this was a few weeks before the 17-year-old San Diego high school senior won the "Jeopardy! Teen Tournament." Despite his second appearance on national television, Kashyap recently seemed most proud of the fact that his name and his accomplishments could now be found online for the world to see.

"Now when you go to Wikipedia, it says that I won on 'Jeopardy!' and the 2005 Scripps National Spelling Bee," he says with a toothy smile. He is only the second person to garner both honors, according to Wiki.

Both wins resulted in handsome cash prizes, which Kashyap says will go toward funding his science studies when he goes to MIT next fall. Although he is interested in many subjects, Kashyap says he will pursue a career in research, despite his mom's concerns.

"She wants me to go into medicine because she thinks research might be more risky," Kashyap explains, "but I think it's really about whatever makes you feel more fulfilled. So I probably will go into academia."

Kashyap had a taste of the research life when he spent seven weeks in Inder Verma's laboratory last summer. Under the tutelage of Lab Manager Mark Schmitt, postdoctoral researcher Niels-Bjarne Woods, and graduate student Aaron Parker, Kashyap learned several basic lab procedures well enough to eventually work independently and conduct a final experiment.

"It was pretty intimidating when I first got here because the first thing Mark did was slap down a bunch of reading materials so I could understand what they were doing," Kashyap says. "Then Mark took me through some of the basic procedures like setting up a [cell] colony and maintaining cultures. These procedures would enable me to do more complex work in a lab."

With the basics under his belt, Kashyap spent time working in Salk's Stem Cell Core facility culturing human embryonic stem cells and learning how to differentiate them into bone marrow.

"It was inspiring, actually, to see someone so young and engaged in all the things we were doing and who is capable of understanding it all," Woods says. Parker agreed: "By the time he came to Bjarne and I, we could actually focus on the science. We never had to tell him anything more than once. We'd tell him a scientific fact and he'd remember it two weeks later."

Verma agreed to let the young scientist work in his lab over the summer at the request of Kashyap's father, who introduced his son to Verma at a local event.

"I met Anurag soon after he won the Spelling Bee and remember being very impressed with his maturity and genuine drive to learn," Verma says.

Although he considers his high school relatively well equipped for science and regularly reads books on microbiology (though he'll read anything with literary merit), Kashyap says none of that could have prepared him for working in a world-renowned lab.

"Once you've been in this lab, there's just no comparison, so this experience is a lot more meaningful. It has taught me a lot about what real laboratory science is like," he says.

About 10 high school students are given a similar opportunity each year through Salk's Summer Enrichment Program. Supported with philanthropic dollars and founded more than 30 years ago by Jonas Salk, the program exposes students to life in the lab through hands-on experiments under the mentorship of Salk scientists.

Throughout the eight-week program designed to encourage careers in science, students are involved with a full-time research project as well as enrichment activities. They learn how to formulate and test hypotheses, prepare experiments and draw conclusions. At the end of the program, students present their research projects to their mentors, lab members and families.

Just like any other researcher, Kashyap also attended weekly lab meetings where scientists present results from their experiments and participate in scientific discussions – a key component to advancing scientific research.

"It was impressive because we would have discussions about things that I didn't learn about until my first year of graduate school, yet Anurag would be participating and adding to them," Parker says.

Kashyap didn't waste time either. When he wasn't in meetings and had spare minutes between experiments, Kashyap would find a quiet corner in the lab and study for Quiz Bowl, yet another national competition he's set to participate in later this year.

For now, he's back at school where he now realizes how his 12th grade science class could be so much more meaningful to his classmates if the program were better funded.

"If people got the chance to do the labs the way they are meant to be done, and actually experience science as opposed to having to use results the teacher has taken off the Internet because they can't afford to actually do the experiment for themselves, a lot more people would definitely be interested in science."

InsideSalk 03|09 Issue | © Salk Institute for Biological Studies