HCVSD Biomedical Sciences Academy student completes NYU GSTEM Program

Hunterdon County Vocational School District Biomedical Sciences Academy (BSA) student Prerna Shankar, a Clinton resident, spent six weeks prior to the start of this school year with 39 other “academically motivated” young women in New York University’s (NYU) GSTEM program.

Shankar, also a member of last year’s class of Governor’s STEM Scholars, recently learned she is a semifinalist in the National Merit Scholarship Program, representing the top 0.5 percent of the high school seniors in New Jersey.

NYU GSTEM is a residential research program at NYU for female students interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Applications for the program are accepted for current juniors with a high aptitude in STEM and an interest in diverse perspectives in the sciences. The “highly competitive program requires four essays, in addition to an official high school transcript, the application, and a letter of recommendation from a teacher, adviser or counselor. Applicants are assessed on the strength of their academic work, STEM activities, essays and recommendations.

As a GSTEM participant, Shankar spent four days each week completing research under the guidance of a mentoring professor; on the other day, she attended workshops or participated in STEM-related field trips. Shankar said the research she conducted at GSTEM focused on the intersection of machine learning and neuroscience. “I used pose estimation software to analyze movements in mice to detect levels of specific anxiety disorders during exposure to the social defeat stress model,” she explained. “I gained so many new skills from this program, ones I can definitely use for further research in the future.”

As a Governor’s STEM Scholar last year, Shankar also conducted research, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was done in a virtual setting. She worked in a team of four high school students, conducting research in the biomedical engineering field under the guidance of two graduate students from NJIT and Drew University. “My research paper investigated the use of MSC-specific stem cell extracellular matrices to create a viable protein scaffold that would aid in muscle regeneration, especially pertaining to cases of volumetric muscle loss,” said Shankar.

Shankar believes the Governor’s STEM Scholar program provided her with invaluable preparation for conducting high-level scientific research. “At GSTEM, I was able to strengthen those skills and put them to amazing use. In addition, the experience that I already had prepared me so much for GSTEM: it was easy getting right into things from the start,” she said.

She said both programs provided significant opportunities. “I learned so many scientific techniques, especially gaining proficiency in tools used regularly in the scientific world today to analyze and gather data, like AutoCAD, ImageJ, Near-Field Electrostatic printing, etc. I had never conducted biomedical engineering research specifically before this point, so it was really cool seeing the concepts of engineering and biology come together as one, especially after all my work in AP Biology and the Biomedical Sciences Academy core courses.”

Shankar also gained a newfound appreciation for engineering. Both of her parents, Arthi Nagaraj and Shankar Iyer, are computer engineers. “I had always thought of it as a ‘heavy’ subject, but I have realized that it can really be whatever you make of it, just like any other career choice. I enjoy the biomedical aspect of things, so my research took a turn in that direction.”

To further explore this career path, she took a Biomedical Engineering elective this school year within the BSA. She credits the BSA for laying the foundation “of the biomedical aspect of things.” Shankar said her involvement in medical terminology competition through BSA’s chapter of HOSA, formerly known as Health Occupations Students of America, enabled her to learn “my anatomy and terminology inside out, so research became that much easier.” Shankar also started the Brain Bee Club at BSA, which she said also propelled her towards choosing a neuroscience-based research project when she was accepted into GSTEM.

“Prerna is an outstanding student,” said Jane Griesinger, HCVSD director of curriculum and academies. “She is the epitome of a BSA student – with a thirst for knowledge and the drive to discover potential career paths by taking advantage of opportunities and learning experiences available to her. We are so proud of her many accomplishments.”

Shankar participates in the biology, chemistry and math leagues at North Hunterdon High School, which houses HCVSD’s BSA. She also is a gold and silver medalist for the high school’s National Latin Exam. Shankar’s involvement in the BSA has helped her connect with other learning opportunities, including the Congress of Future Medical Leaders, and publishing papers on two DNA sequences on GenBank through her participation in the competitive Rutgers’ WISE Program.

The GSTEM experience has inspired her to continue learning and preparing for a career in STEM. “GSTEM really opened my eyes to the sheer potential women have in the STEM world; I strongly feel that there are so many women out there who have such a strong passion for the sciences, and if I could, I’d tell them to all go for it,” said Shankar. She believes encouraging more women to go into STEM fields and STEM careers is something that should be at the highest priority in society today. “For measurable scientific advancement, we need many different opinions and views on the issues that are developing throughout the world today,” she said. “I firmly believe women can bring that unique perspective to the table.”

Submitted by the Hunterdon County Vocational School District

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