Harvard-bound Teen Spends His "Gap Year" in Ramanathan Lab – Contributing to Studies on Environmental Toxins and Aging

Arvind Ramanathan, PhD, and Matt AguirreBuck faculty Arvind Ramanathan, PhD, has no doubt that Harvard-bound Matt Aguirre is going to be a stellar scientist. Describing the 17-year-old Novato Eagle Scout as "mature beyond his years," Ramanathan is giving the former Summer Scholar another opportunity to hone his scientific chops before he heads to Boston. Aguirre is spending time during his so-called "gap year" interning in the Ramanathan lab on a project aimed at identifying the impact of environmental toxins on aging.

In true scientific fashion, Aguirre researched the benefits of taking a year off before plunging into life at Harvard, especially important given that he graduated early from St. Vincent’s High School in Petaluma.  "There were lots of papers that talked about the value of personal growth and taking time to 'find yourself,'" said Aguirre, who will be tackling coursework in biomedical engineering at Harvard.

As a recent Summer Scholar, Aguirre worked on a complex project in the Ramanathan lab studying tumor formation in lung cancer. His gap year project is an extension of that work and is even more challenging.

The lab is looking at the Aryl hydrocarbon Receptor (AhR) which is present in every cell of the body and binds to a number of environmental pollutants. Even though it’s been established that environmental pollutants can cause cancer, almost nothing is known about how those pollutants impact cancer metabolism or the aging process. Ramanathan thinks AhR is a likely player in both. And he thinks lung cancer is a good model to explore the hypothesis, given that the lungs are consistently exposed to a number of pollutants.

Aguirre is creating a database of lipid and aqueous metabolites that are known to bind to AhR. That data is helping inform mass spectrometry and metabolomics experiments. Metabolomics is a newly emerging field of research aimed at providing both an up-close and big-picture understanding of metabolic status within an organism. Later this year he will return to cell culture helping lab members zero in on metabolic pathways that drive both cancer and the aging process. "It's a great opportunity for me to get a taste of what lab-based science is like and Arvind is a great mentor," says the soft-spoken Aguirre, who is spending three days a week in the lab.

Aguirre’s route to the Buck was extremely local. His trajectory when he leaves for Boston will be anything but. And his story is a perfect example of how everyone at the Buck is committed to developing the next generation of researchers. Aguirre met Facilities Manager Tom Starr at a Boy Scout event held at the Buck (the teenager is also doing Scout-related volunteering at the Institute). Starr introduced him to K-12 Education Coordinator Julie Mangada who recognized that Aguirre was "the best of the best" and could handle an intense hands-on assignment as a Summer Scholar. The teen made a personal connection with Ramanathan, who spent six years working at the Harvard-affiliated Broad Institute before coming to the Buck.  Ramanathan will make sure that when Aguirre lands in Boston he’ll have opportunities to meet colleagues who work in Harvard labs.

It will be a jump start for Aguirre and the continuation of what will hopefully be a career-spanning mentorship for a stellar scientist who got his start at the Buck.

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