TILF Success Stories: Meet Sai Gourisankar
Posted by Trudy Richards on 10/04/2013
As a college freshman, TILF Scholar Sai Gourisankar leapt into research that could revolutionize the way we see cells. How did he get started?
“I just emailed the professor,” he said, referring to Professor Keith P. Johnston, in the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. “I thought his research was cool.”
Now a junior, he has since worked with a group of chemical engineers to design gold nanoparticle clusters that would make it easier for doctors to target diseased cells under, for example, photoacoustic imaging.
Sai’s enthusiasm for the sciences was fostered in high school by teacher and UIL coach Gary B. Hicks.
“I started because I took a Computer Science class, and one of my teachers in high school my sophomore year was really interested in UIL,” Sai said. “He got me into Computer Science and he also got me into Number Sense.”
Sai also participated in UIL Math and Science, and competed at the state level twice. He enjoyed the group dynamic and said that being part of a team was “a lot of fun.”
“I traveled everywhere with those guys,” he said. “I’m actually living with some of the same people right now, my Computer Science team. Most of our CS team ended up at UT.”
Sai said that securing a Welch Foundation scholarship through TILF his senior year helped him make the choice to attend the University of Texas at Austin, double majoring in Plan II Honors and Chemical Engineering.
“It released some pressure in finding sources of funding,” he said. “I’m definitely proud that I received it and grateful to the Foundation.”
Sai was also one of 271 students nationwide to be awarded the prestigious Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, a program that highlights students with the potential to perform research in engineering, mathematics, and natural sciences.
“I’m happy that they chose me,” he said. “There are many deserving researchers, so at some point, it comes out to luck a little bit.”
He submitted a research proposal to engineer clusters made of gold and iron oxide nanoparticles to enable MRI functionality, essentially expanding the potential capabilities of the existing technology.
“There’s a lot of people doing research, I’m not the only one,” he said, mentioning undergraduate chemical engineering colleagues Golay D. Nie and Miguel Martinez. “I was the only one [of our group] who chose to apply, so there are a lot of people not even being recognized for their great work.”
The chemical engineering team involved with the nanocluster structure and assembly aspect of the project includes Professor T.M. Truskett, Dr. Avinash Murthy, and Ph.D. candidate Bobby Stover.
Sai spends at least 9 hours a week in the research lab looking to make progress.
“I’m working on engineering molecular imaging contrast agents,” he said. “So basically we’re engineering nanoparticles on the size scale of a virus that will then go into your body and are non-toxic, biodegradable, completely harmless, and they will highlight certain cells.”
Or, in layman’s terms:
“A way to think about this is, you’re putting little mirrors in the body - gold is shiny and reflective. You want to make your mirror as big as possible, without making it too big such that it won’t biodegrade. So we’re working on building that optimum.”
The project then collaborates with professors Konstantin V. Sokolov and Stanislav Emelianov’s biomedical engineering group for practical testing in mice.
“There’s somebody else to apply it, in this case, but I’m fine with that,” Sai said. “Even though the application of this is for medical technology, fundamentally we do physics and chemistry in our lab - that’s what I was interested in.”
Sai understands the vast potential in chemical engineering and seeks “flashbulb moments” that make the literature-to-research connection come to life.
“I find the underlying physical concepts behind building these particles exciting,” he said. “It’s amazing, you can make the same nanoparticles, same synthesis, and you make all sorts of things from them.”
He is currently leading an effort to probe the internal structure of the clusters using x-ray and neutron scanning, in order to gain better insight into the formation and capacities of their current research.
“It’s a long term project for sure. It has to go to a lot of things before people will accept it,” Sai said. “But it terms of experience, I’d like to take it forward to grad school.”
He hopes to use the knowledge he’s learned about experimentation and the iteration of research to find success at a top chemical engineering school, specializing in advanced materials.
For now, Sai balances his time between research, classes, and regular college life. He is a member of the Chemical Engineering Honor Society Omega Chi Epsilon and enjoys playing tennis. He says that being busy is “a part of life.”
“But I’m enjoying the challenge,” Sai said. “I think I like to seek challenge.”
Written by Jan Ross Piedad