‘Curiosity and perseverance’

By Jan Jarvis

ruhani ahluwalia in the lab

 

Most tweens spend their free time playing video games, posting pics or taking selfies.

Ruhani Ahluwalia, 12, spends her time doing research at UNT Health Science Center that could one day lead to a better method for cancer treatment with minimal side effects.

“I just really like science and want to learn how the body works,” said Ruhani, who lives in Arlington. “I’m interested in cancer treatment because my great aunt died from the harsh effects of chemotherapy.”

Over the summer, Ruhani worked in the lab of Andras Lacko, PhD, Professor in the Institute for Cardiovascular and Metabolic Diseases. There, she donned a lab coat and filled nanoparticles with drugs to test whether they could target cancer without harming other cells.

Ruhani, an eighth-grader at Harmony School of Innovation in Fort Worth, was inspired to find a better way to treat cancer after her great aunt died of leukemia in 2015. Soon after the death she set out to find a way that she could diminish the deleterious side effects that accompany the use of chemotherapeutic agents.

Her search led her to Dr. Lacko, who was quite surprised that someone so young would have an interest in working in his lab. The youngest person who has ever worked with him before Ruhani was 17, he said. But the 12-year-old’s determination and knowledge convinced him she had the qualities needed to pursue a career in science.

“Students who want to be scientists have to have a strong sense of curiosity and perseverance,” he said. “And it doesn’t hurt to be brilliant, too.”

Ruhani clearly meets the requirements. Even as a little girl she was able to grasp complex scientific theories. Over the past two years she has won more than 20 awards at science and engineering fairs. Despite her youth, the data she collected from her research will be submitted for publication in a scientific journal.

Ruhani’s mom, a former UNTHSC post-doctoral fellow, helped guide her daughter toward Dr. Lacko’ s lab because he is researching the use of nanoparticles to precisely deliver drugs to tumors without damaging healthy tissue. Over the summer Ruhani proved she was up to the challenge of learning to use lab equipment and collect data.

She’ll have to make time in her busy schedule to continue her research.

While science is her greatest passion, she’s also a gifted artist and pianist who has been recognized for her talent in numerous competitions. Among her artwork is a detailed drawing of her beloved great aunt. She also has written two short stories and earned a brown belt in taekwando.

“As much as I like working in the lab when I come home I like to draw and play the piano,” she said.

Ruhani said she admires Dr. Lacko, who took time from his busy schedule to go over the data that she collected. She was thrilled when he came to the Fort Worth City Hall to show his support when she and a few other students were recognized for their outstanding science fair projects.

While at UNTHSC, she worked closely with Rebecca Johnson, a research assistant who earned her PhD in August. Together they focused on the use of nanoparticles in treating triple negative breast cancer.

“It was hard learning the theories behind the work,” Ruhani said. “But I really liked it so much that I want to come again next year. It is rewarding to work in a lab where all of the lab members are encouraging you to do your best.”

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