When Palo Alto High School senior Hrishikesh Srinagesh volunteered at Lytton Gardens Senior Communities he worked with a woman named Alice who was talkative and "fun to be around." But every week he would come back to see her and she couldn't remember him.
"It was difficult for me," Srinagesh said. "It seemed unfathomable that plaque buildups, tangled neurons, and misfolded proteins could cause this kind of degeneration in her brain, turning my friend into a stranger with Alzheimer's disease."
Srinagesh had read about memory function and the brain in his biology textbooks. However, Alice's illness made his knowledge more significant, inspiring him to pursue research opportunities to study neurodegenerative diseases.
In June 2008 Srinagesh participated in the Stanford Institutes of Medicine Summer Research Program, where he had an internship to conduct research on multiple sclerosis, a disease that affects 2.5 million people worldwide.
Multiple sclerosis is a disease where the immune system attacks myelin, an insulating lipid that protects nerve cells in the central nervous system.
At Stanford, Srinagesh performed experiments with mice induced with a version of multiple sclerosis. He worked with professor of neurology Lawrence Steinman and his associates on experiments with T-cell activation in response to myelin.
Srinagesh discovered a naturally occurring lipid molecule in the brain that kills off the T-cells that are attacking the myelin, such that the mice treated with the lipid suddenly got better.
"We're still looking at how it could one day show promise in humans," Srinagesh said.
"In the 35 years I have been at Stanford University, Hrishi is one of the five most impressive young students whom I have taught," Steinman said. "He formed a clear hypothesis and then set out to show how these lipids block the development of pro-inflammatory response in autoimmune T cells. When we publish the data from the project, Hrishi will be a key author."
When Srinagesh entered in the Intel Science Talent Search, Steinman and his teachers were happy to write him a recommendation. "Hrishikesh has demonstrated perseverance and dedication on a project that will lead to significant progress in therapeutic development in the field of autoimmunity and to multiple sclerosis in particular," Stanford University research associate Dr. Peggy P. Ho said.
Half a year later, when Intel showed up at his class to present him a $1,000 check for being a semi-finalist in the annual Intel Science Talent Search contest, Srinagesh was not surprised. He had already checked the website to see if he qualified.
However, his classmates and teachers were surprised. They gave him a hearty round of applause followed by praise from principal Jacqueline McEvoy.
"Its work that's he's doing that could have a real affect on a cure," McEvoy said.
Srinagesh was one of 300 semifinalists out of 1,608 contestants nationwide. On Jan. 28, 40 finalists will be named and given an all-expense paid trip to Washington DC in March to compete for more than half a million dollars.
Also among the 300 semifinalists was senior Maya Mathur from Castilleja High School.
Mathur, from Woodside, did a study examining the social responses of people to a series of pictures of human-like robot faces. She used game-theory research methods and discovered that subtle robot facial changes, such as a raised eyebrow, could decrease how much humans trust them.
"Unlike many of her peers, Maya retains the ability and desire to question nearly everything," Castilleja physics teacher Jonathan Rockman said. "She is a brilliant student who is quick to understand most concepts."