Pia did not start as a scientist. When she was little, she had a ‘science box’ filled with popsicle sticks and string, but never related that to a career. But when she sat down in freshmen biology, something clicked. Her love for bacteria and microbiology began to grow. Every time she learned something new in class, she would rush home and Wikipedia everything from her notes. Soon, she began asking questions the people around her couldn’t answer. Eventually, her biology teacher told her to email a professor from the University of Texas at Austin. And that she did- looking up and emailing a professor a proposal for a cystic fibrosis research project that strived to explore the role of neutrophil elastase (enzymes) in the lung mucus of a person with Cystic Fibrosis. Later, she would find out that her proposal was passed around the department, and people had trouble believing that a high school freshman had written it.
The summer of her 10th grade, Pia was invited to work in her first lab under a post doc who was well versed in cystic fibrosis research. She instantly fell in love. From that moment, she knew that research was what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. Pia’s first project was different than most high school research experiences, rather than washing beakers she worked on directed evolution of an enzyme to degrade quorum sensing signaling molecules that enabled growth of a bacteria called Pseudomonas aeruginosa that killed the majority of cystic fibrosis patients. Following that research, she emailed another professor in the biophysics department at UT Austin as part of a paid summer internship that ended up extending through the first semester of her junior year. There, she began to work on studying the physical properties of cancer cells- specifically in relation to their elasticity and how that allows for tumor growth when cancerous cells grow in spheroids and have the ability to push apart healthy cells. During that time, she became more active with her high school robotics team and began to develop a love of mechanical, electrical, and computational engineering that she considered totally different than her love of biology. Concurrently, she also joined her high school synthetic biology club and was inspired to begin work in the lab of Professor Andrew Ellington where she currently researches, and is working on another cystic fibrosis treatment project.
In 11th grade, she decided to sign up for the Austin Regional Science Fair with a project that combined her love of electrical engineering and biology. Antibiotic resistance was making news headlines: bacteria that had survived rounds of treatment were killing people because they were unable to be destroyed with normal medical techniques. Most solutions were ineffective, and very expensive. Using tumor treatment fields, Pia discovered a way to treat antibiotic resistant bacteria in the human body- a very cost efficient, novel technique that can be used in third world countries where antibiotic resistance is becoming an increasing problem. This discovery won her first place at the Austin Regional Science Fair and qualified her to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. She went on to win 2nd place at the Exxon Science Fair, and two awards at the Intel Science Fair in Los Angeles, CA.
She was also featured by the humanitarian start up Not Impossible Labs as a “Not Impossible Teen to Watch” seen here: http://www.notimpossiblenow.com/lives/pia-sen-not-impossible-teen
One award was a $60,000 dollar college scholarship, and the other was a full paid trip to Trentino, Italy where she did research in the field of bioinformatics and worked with an international research team to develop a way to diagnose IBD in children using machine learning based off of the 16s sequencing data found in fecal and biopsy samples. This system is currently being used in the Bambino Gesu Hospital in Rome, Italy.
Pia has received various other honors, amongst which are being a national runner up for the National Center for Women and Information Technology award (NCWIT), as well as a member of her world championship qualifying robotics team, Purple Haze. Pia is also a varsity policy debater who competes nationally, and an officer of her high school synthetic biology club.
Pia plans to become a biomedical engineer. Her favorite thing about research is its ability to make a difference with ideas that exist even after the engineer dies. Her biggest goal is to unite fields such as mechanical engineering, programming, and biology.
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