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It’s the Journey

Oregon Student is a Semifinalist in Intel Science Talent Search

Bioremediation research project contributes to understanding faster degradation of oil

Srinidhi Viswanathan started out as a curious child. In elementary school she took delight in such rudimentary experiments as finding out which vegetables would conduct the most electricity.

Now an Oregon high school senior, she has moved on to considerably more complex work.

Viswanathan is building on research by the National Academy of Sciences showing that more than 50 species of microbes consumed much of the oil and gas plume in the Gulf of Mexico caused by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

In January 2012, her research showing how ravenous bacteria can help protect the environment for future generations earned her a position as a semifinalist in the Intel Science Talent Search (Intel STS), the nation’s oldest and most prestigious pre-college science competition.

Microbiology interest leads to bioremediation research

Viswanathan’s father, Vish, first came to the United States from Chennai, India in 1987 and took a position with Intel in Hillsboro, Oregon. Still at Intel, he is now a principal engineer in the Software and Services Group. He nurtured his daughter’s interest in math and science from an early age.

In middle school, Viswanathan became fascinated with microbiology upon witnessing millions of bacterial colonies growing in a petri dish. “I realized a delightful paradox: these normally invisible organisms could tackle water pollution by cleaning up massive oil spills,” she says. Intrigued, she began to conduct independent research on accelerating the breakdown of oil spills using bacteria naturally present in the water, or bioremediation.

That led to her Intel STS submission on bioremediation. “The bacteria species Cycloclasticus pugetii (Cp) specialize in breaking down toxic Hydrocarbons,” she says. “During the 2010 gulf oil spill, the dispersant Corexit was used, but its metabolic effect on Cp is unknown. My research suggests that adding Corexit to an oil spill can enhance the growth of Cp, and thus increase the breakdown of oil. In addition, specific proteins have been identified that are responsible for metabolic changes in the bacteria in the presence of oil and Corexit. With this new information, we can target these proteins and identify their corresponding genes to possibly lead to faster degradation of oil.”

Internship facilitates oil spill research

Viswanathan accumulated a steady series of accomplishments, including presenting interactive science demonstrations to the public visiting the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and serving as a research intern at the Oregon Health and Sciences University. She was recognized as a National AP Scholar, achieving the highest level on all 11 AP tests taken in her junior year and being one of 13 U.S. students picked to participate as a Clark Scholar in a 7-week paid research internship position at Texas Tech University. There Dr. Michael San Francisco, a professor of biological sciences, mentored her. “I was ecstatic at being connected with him,” she says, “He was able to get me access to oil from the gulf spill.”

San Francisco said that after he suggested the goals and overall experimental plan for her project, Viswanathan readily took the intellectual lead, working closely with laboratory personnel and scientists at the university. “Srinidhi showed excellent resourcefulness and enthusiasm throughout her project and presented her work superbly,” San Francisco said. “Her maturity of thought, dedication, creativity, and resilience are hallmarks of a person who will make significant contributions to science in the future.”

Father encourages analytical thinking

"It's not about the final result, but the journey," her father emphasized. “Whether I was engineering LEGO robots with him as a 5th grader, or brainstorming ideas for my science fair project with him as a teenager, he has always inspired me with his passion for science, but more importantly, the analytical thinking that goes behind it,” Viswanathan says. “To him, the final conclusion is not as important as the creativity and problem-solving that leads to it. His unwavering supply of advice and attention has laid the foundation for me to become a successful scientist in the future.”