Fierce Female: Shriya Bhat, the teenage biologist

Shriya Bhat Fierce Female Plano 2022. Photo by Kathy Tran.

As Shriya Bhat entered her first year of high school, she got word that one of her cousins had succumbed to a bacterial infection. Though the infection is common, her cousin lives in a rural part of South India, where doctors did not have access to antibiotics that could help her.

“It was heartbreaking to watch the doctors prescribe more and more antibiotics, and there’s just really nothing we can do,” Bhat says.

Bhat was inspired by the experience and began looking at how the bacterial infection, bacterial biofilm, worked. She found that biofilm is a group of bacterial cells that congregate and are more resistant to typical antibiotics. The bacteria communicate with one another and regulate gene expression in a way Bhat akins to talking.

“I got really interested in the mechanisms of how this biofilm grows because it will sustain itself. And as I did more research into more cost-effective solutions, that’s when I started getting interested in specifically trying to target this bacterial speak, sort of intercepted the communication,” Bhat says. “So I was actually using ingredients that we typically use in South Indian cooking, and I was studying those natural compounds to see if they had any potential for combating biofilm growth.”

Using this combination of bacterial knowledge and Eastern Asian medicine, Bhat began to research compounds found in her own kitchen to see what could combat this disease. Bhat worked in a lab at Baylor Scott and White Health clinic and published a paper in the International Journal of High School Research.

The paper, titled “Generating a Non-toxic, Multi-pathway Targeted Combination Treatment to Inhibit Pseudomonas Biofilm In-vitro,” discusses her findings that demonstrate that non-toxic substances could be effective against biofilm.

Bhat spent her summer at Harvard Medical School in Boston with Dr. Steven Laurie, a microbiology professor, to learn more about antibiotic resistance and the tools used in a university lab setting. This research is a part of the Research Science Institute Program, where 80 of the world’s most accomplished high-school students come to MIT/Harvard Medical School. There she found students with interests across the STEM field, many of whom with interests outside of the traditional science track.

“Being a woman in STEM is just not being afraid to pursue whatever it is you want to do. I think that there is sort of a stigma against women who not necessarily do STEM or enjoy STEM but women who make STEM their entire life, and I think that stigma truly needs to be broken down,” Bhat says.

Bhat has other interests. At Plano East Senior High School, she has been location content research intern for the University of Texas at Dallas, publishing intern for Mission Impossible Kids, biological content research intern at UTD, an intern at iStart Valley, a student debate instructor, and founder and president at student-led nonprofit SySTEM for Success.

While Bhat doesn’t know what is next in her research and career journey, she aims to continue researching her cousin’s illness and working with biofilm — and of course to graduate high school.

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