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Ashland High School
Ashland, MA

Angela Early
Infectious Disease and Microbiome Program 

Human malaria is an infectious mosquito-borne disease caused by different species of the parasite Plasmodium, of which P. falciparum is the most deadly. The parasite P. falciparum spends different stages of its life cycle in mosquito, host liver, and host blood. In order for this parasite to be transmitted back to the mosquito from the human, the parasite must enter into its sexual life cycle to produce gametocytes. If no gametocytes are formed, then no transmission occurs. When P. falciparum is grown in the lab, they are grown in conditions that mimic the blood stage, and these parasites sometimes lose their ability to form gametocytes. This observation led to the question of whether or not parasites in natural infections lose their ability to form gametocytes. To study gametocyte formation, Sanjana took a computational approach to study mutations that arose in natural infections within the host. She focused on nine genes that are known drivers of gametocyte formation, and identified rare mutations in these genes and compared them to mutations that arise in these genes in lab cultures. Comparisons between the natural and lab samples revealed that these driver genes became nonfunctional more often in lab than in natural samples. However, sexual genes in natural samples did have a higher than expected number of nonsynonymous mutations. This leaves open the possibility that there is a trade-off between multiplying rapidly within the host and being transmitted back to the mosquito.

"Broad is a community of great diversity so it was wonderful meeting people from all around the world and learning about their experience pursuing a career in science. My mentor was a huge inspiration as she guided me into my work but still gave me the opportunity to find my own ways to approach a task," said Sanjana. Her experience assured her that she wants to study computational biology and bioinformatics in college, and she hopes to be involved in more research opportunities along the way.