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GHS student’s Zika detection project rakes in $50,000

September 1, 2018

GREENWICH — Working with mosquitoes gave Rahul Subramaniam itchy wrists in icy weather. But his final result, a trap that detects mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus, was worth every bite: It recently won him $50,000 in scholarship money.

“Finding live mosquitoes in the middle of winter in Connecticut was not easy at all,” the Greenwich High School senior said of his sophomore-year research project, which he largely developed in teacher Andrew Bramante’s honors science research classroom. “I seriously considered buying them online and releasing them in my garage.”

Detecting Zika in the wild is difficult, and current methods require special equipment that at-risk communities do not have. By contrast, Subramaniam’s trap is inexpensive to build and requires neither human intervention nor advanced equipment, making it ideal for remote locations and disadvantaged regions.

The early warning system is an important first step in combatting the virus, according to Michael Thomas, a research technician with whom Subramaniam worked. Within 15 minutes, a field worker can determine whether Zika is in an area, warn people nearby, and quarantine the area for additional testing, he said.

“A lot of people have been asking him to patent it,” Rahul’s father, Prem Subramaniam, said. “I didn’t expect all this to follow from something so simple.”

Rahul Subramaniam was one of three students in the nation this year to earn the title Davidson Fellow Laureate, an honor for which he received $50,000.

“The scholarship was out of the blue,” said the elder Subramaniam, a research scientist at Columbia University.

The father said he could not believe the project — which uses supplies he and his son bought at Walmart — worked.

While Rahul could not buy mosquitoes at a department store, he could experiment on them in a state laboratory he found in New Haven that had a colony of the species known to carry Zika.

The lab, the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, provided him with the tiny insects and a mentor, Thomas, who guided him through working with the bugs. Thomas pointed out his role was minor but he was thoroughly impressed with the high school student.

“During my 15 years, in my opinion, Rahul is one of the brightest and most talented students I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with, and that includes college students,” he said. “Rahul impressed me with his dedication and hard work.”

Subramaniam has two other microbiology projects under his belt, including a patch that can detect the presence of prostate cancer. He conducted most of his research in Bramante’s class at Greenwich High. In Room 932, students devote the entire year to researching and testing one project, which they can then take to science fairs across the state and nation.

“I felt like this was the best, most-fleshed out of the other projects I’ve done,” Subramaniam said. “I’d done all the experiments from start to end to make it convincing, it had the biggest possible impact of all the other projects I’ve done.”

His experience submitting to the Davidson Fellow contest was unlike presenting his project at science fairs, which competitors call “the circuit.”

On the circuit, experienced scientists bombard students with questions that introduce topics they had not previously considered.

“You often get questions out of left field and you have to figure out how to answer them on the fly,” Subramaniam said.

For the Davidson, he wrote an essay and explained his project in front of a camera.

“That was something tricky I hadn’t experienced before,” he said.

The scholarship money will go toward tuition and related expenses in college. Subramaniam’s top choices are Harvard, Columbia and Yale, and he is leaning toward studying pre-med.

“Rahul has a bright future and I expect he’s going to accomplish great things under the right mentorship,” Thomas said. “Hopefully he will be given that opp to solve some of the world’s health problems.”

jo.kroeker@hearstmediact.com

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