Student Q&A: Aditi Kona

2021 LRSEF participant Aditi Kona went on to compete in the 2021 ISEF virtual fair. We asked Aditi to share a little bit about the experience.

Can you tell us a little bit about your project?
My project used molecular visualization systems and online servers to characterize a novel enzyme known as insulin-degrading enzyme (IDE). Amyloid-beta (Aβ) and insulin, two substrates of IDE, are critically important in the pathogenesis of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and type 2 diabetes (T2D), respectively. IDE is a major Aβ-degrading enzyme, linked with slowed AD progression. Conversely, inhibiting IDE results in retention of insulin, thus reducing T2D symptoms. Since substrate degradation occurs in the endosome, the purpose of this project is to produce a mutant version of IDE that does not localize to the endosome while retaining full enzyme activity. These studies provide the molecular basis for substrate recognition and offer insight into designing novel IDE-based therapies to control amyloid-beta and blood sugar concentrations.

What did you think of the virtual ISEF experience? Did you face any challenges when preparing for the virtual fairs this year?
I loved the virtual ISEF experience because Society for Science did a fantastic job with incorporating one of the most important components of ISEF – meeting other Finalists. The EventFarm application allowed us to create avatars and move our characters around so that we could unmute and talk to other participants. It was a fantastic experience with being able to chat and virtually strike up conversations with anyone across the world. I’ve made new friends who I’ve Zoom’d with and hope to keep in touch with! Overall, I really enjoyed the virtual experience and think that the Society of Science did an extraordinary job!

What was your favorite ISEF session and why?
My favorite session was absolutely the Cellular and Molecular Biology Category Reception. I got to talk one-on-one with Regeneron employees, one of whom sparked my interest in the intersection between business and healthcare. Additionally, I got an insight into how research, much like the work that Finalists did, is transformed into real-world applications through clinical trials, therapies, and more! I also had the chance to talk to Finalists from my category and it was incredible to hear about their process in creating their science fair project.

What advice would you give to other students who are facing challenges when doing STEM research?
I think there is a lot of pressure to pursue a lab-based project or an emphasis that you have to do wet-lab work to do meaningful research. However, especially due to the pandemic, so much innovation can happen in your home itself. All it takes is one question and an entire experiment can come from that. Also, I would definitely encourage other students to reach out to mentors even if their work is not actually taking place in a lab. I connected with my mentor by simply expressing my interest in his work through email and his guidance was invaluable through this process. Don’t hesitate to reach out because professionals are more often willing to help than not!

What’s next for you? Do you plan to continue your research?
Absolutely! I am continuing to work remotely on this research through the summer, under the guidance of my mentor, Dr. David Rodgers. Since my work is aimed at identifying key residues to mutate, the goal is to select several mutations and test them out by the end of the summer. Ultimately, this exposure to research was key in understanding where my interests lie and provides a clear perspective for what I want to pursue in the future!

What would you say is the most valuable takeaway or lesson you’ve learned from participating in science fairs?
Lots of people that looked at my project – judges and the public – pushed me to expand my knowledge and also how I approached a problem. The public speaking skills combined with the ability to explain the challenging science conceptually and in layman’s terms forced me to think systematically and approach every problem from a new perspective. Learning to understand the scientific research process fundamentally changed the way I think, so the most valuable lesson was definitely the mindset that I took away.