SBB recently caught up with a few past winners of the NIDA Addiction Science Fair Award to find out what the teens are doing now. Not everyone has followed a science path, but they are all in college pursuing their interests. In this series, the winners offer advice for today’s high school students trying to figure out what to do after graduation.
Kapil Ramachandran, a native of Austin, Texas, won first-place recognition in 2008 as NIDA’s first Addiction Science Fair Award winner for his work investigating the biological basis of alcohol addiction. His research on “drunk” fruit flies allowed him to conduct tests to study how manipulating a specific protein in fruit flies affects tolerance for alcohol. This research can apply to understanding similar reactions in humans.
Kapil’s interest in addiction science started when he worked in a hospital emergency room. “I was in the ER and saw a kid die from narcotics overdose. That hit me like a wall of bricks. It’s a mental image that doesn’t go away. Now I have an insane kind of curiosity.”
He notes that in high school, he was incredibly lucky to study epigenetics, the interplay between genes and the environment. He worked in a lab at the University of Texas at Austin, then continued his lab research while studying biology and physiology at Duke University, where he submitted a research paper that is currently being reviewed for publication.
Kapil’s interest in addiction research continues. This year, he enrolled in graduate school at Johns Hopkins University where he hopes to earn a doctorate in neuroscience. At the Hopkins lab, he works with a faculty advisor studying how THC, marijuana’s active ingredient, affects fruit flies. He is trying to discover how THC influences processes other than by acting on cannabinoid receptors in the brain and body.
The Importance of Mentors
Because generous mentors helped Kapil at every step, he encourages high school students interested in science to allow themselves to be curious about a problem and go after it. Kapil found that other scientists will respond when they see your interest is genuine, even if it’s just working on small problems in biology class.
Kapil is committed to sharing his passion for science, and volunteers at an inner city high school in Baltimore through the Incentive Mentoring Program. While he tutors teens in math, science, and English, Kapil feels he is giving them more than just help with schoolwork. “It’s important for kids who are struggling to be surrounded by people who have the drive to learn, because it’s contagious. Science is not something that’s easy to do. But it’s gratifying like nothing else—it gives you an experience that helps you think in a different way.”