Two Hopkins seniors get Astronaut Scholarships

By TED TAK and JAMES SCHARF | September 5, 2019

This summer, two Hopkins seniors — Vinay Ayyappan and Kathy Le — received the Astronaut Scholarship for their potential in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Ayyappan also received the scholarship last year.

Six surviving Mercury 7 astronauts founded the scholarship in 1984 in order to bring together science students from American universities. 

The scholarship selectsed 52 students from 38 participating universities this year. Recipients of the scholarship get $10,000. In addition, they are able to go on a paid trip to the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation’s Innovators Weekend in D.C.

Ayyappan and Le are majoring in Biomedical Engineering and Biophysics, respectively. They shared their research experiences in interviews with The News-Letter.

Le’s first exposure to research was during her sophomore year of high school, when she joined a STEM mentoring program. Le was paired with Erika Matunis, a professor in the School of Medicine’s cellular biology department.

As an undergraduate, Le continued working in Matunis’s lab. Le’s research focuses on the model to screen mutations that might cause genetic disorders in humans.

“My project is about trying to use the stem cell niche in the Drosophila melanogaster testes to model how mutations in human germs can affect the frequency of genetic disorders in the children and how they inherit them from their fathers,” Le said.

Le’s project uses fruit flies to create a future model to screen human genetic code for mutations.

“The project is mostly to find out if we can use the Drosophila testes model to represent that phenomenon, and to see if in the future we can use the Drosophila testes model to screen for different advantageous mutations that can give us insight into what mutations are causing genetic disorders in humans,” she said.

Ayyappan became interested in cancer research after he lost a loved one to cancer.

“When I was in high school, I lost a very close friend to cancer,” he said. “So when I came to Hopkins, I knew that cancer research was something I wanted to do.”

At Hopkins, Ayyappan has worked in Kristine Glunde’s lab at the med campus. His research deals with cancer metabolism — specifically, creatine metabolism in breast cancer, and he focuses on using metabolic profiles on cancer cells to monitor and treat the disease.

“During my sophomore year, I identified a gene, one of the creatine kinase genes, as the thing that drive malignant kinase metaboloid profiles in breast cancer,” he said. “Since then ,I’ve been more rigorously characterizing what role that gene plays in breast cancer.”

Ayyappan believes that his research has larger implications for cancer treatment because the metaboloid can be used for non-invasive monitoring of cancer patients.

“You can use it to stratify patients to diagnose disease, but it can also be useful for treatment monitoring,” Ayyappan said. “One of the focuses of our lab is looking at the effect of chemotherapeutics administration on these metaboloid profiles.”

Ayyappan is currently applying to combined MD/PhD programs to study oncology. However, he added that he plans to keep in mind the approaches from the field of radiology and medical imaging in his research.

“I ideally envision myself pursuing a career as a medical oncologist, but I also think that the imaging field is one where I intend to stay for a very long time,” Ayyappan said.

Le is currently applying to graduate school to pursue a PhD in biophysics. Eventually she hopes to either work as a professor or as a full-time researcher at a research nonprofit.

“All of this is to prepare myself to answer the larger questions in cell biology and biophysics because I want to combine those two aspects,” she said.

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