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SLU Junior Paves the Way for Future Students Through Cancer Research

by Jacob Born
Media Inquiries

Jacob Born
Communications Specialist

Reserved for members of the media.

Kavya Harish wasn’t sure what to expect the first time she walked into the cancer research lab led by biology professor Sofia Origanti, Ph.D. 

Heading into college, Harish enjoyed her science classes, and the thought of doing cancer research, something so many other people in the University and around the world were focused on, was intimidating. But still, there was a voice in the back of her head saying this was something she was supposed to do, and so she got to work. 

Junior Kavya Harish peers into a microscope in the Saint Louis University cancer research lab.

After three years of hard work, junior Kavya Harish was recognized as one of 10 recipients of the American Association of Cancer Research award, making her one of the young leaders in her field. Photo courtesy of Kavya Harish. 

Three years later, Harish is being recognized as one of 10 recipients of the American Association for Cancer Research Award, joining students from other prestigious universities such as Yale, Harvard and Cornell.

“I’m so humbled to be one of 10 people to receive this award from the AACR,” Harish said. “It's a really big accomplishment not just for myself, but also for the lab and the university as a whole. It’s all just really exciting.”

The AACR award is eligible for junior students and contains all-expenses-paid trips to AACR conferences for two years and additional money to continue cancer research. The annual AACR Conference brings together the brightest minds in cancer research, both students and professionals, to share the latest cutting-edge findings, procedures and best practices to battle one of the world’s deadliest diseases. 

Throughout her time conducting cancer research, Harish never thought she’d be recognized with such an award. So much so, that when she got the email congratulating her, she didn’t think it was real. 

“When I got the email, I thought it was fake,” Harish said. “After the initial shock, I just felt incredibly grateful, because you never think that you would receive this prestigious of an award. It’s only given to 10 undergrads in the country. From an outside perspective, when you see all these other undergrads doing work, you realize they're the future of their field. And you never really think of yourself like that until you're put in that position. Now, I'm even more motivated to continue doing cancer research.”

Part of the application process was showcasing her research and highlighting why her project is important in the global fight against cancer, which has been funded by National Institutes of Health-R01. 

“The application itself wasn’t the hardest part of it,” Harish said. “It was actually all the research and time it takes to build the project. Presenting it on the application was enjoyable because I got to see all the hard work laid out together. For the last two years and every summer, working in the lab has opened my eyes to the world of cancer research, which wouldn’t be possible without funding from the NIH. It’s been a lot of work but so rewarding.”

During her time in cancer research, Harish has been working with the eIF6 translation initiation factor that regulates the ribosomal machinery in cells. Cancer cells have a deregulated ribosomal machinery, which produce certain proteins at unregulated levels, causing these cells to lose normal growth restrictions. Harish is targeting the eIF6 translation initiation factor and attempting to inhibit protein production. By doing so, she’s shown that previously unrelenting cell growth can be controlled, which can help regulate certain cancers, such as colon cancer. 

Harish will present her research at the 2023 AACR Conference in Orlando, Fla. where she will be surrounded by peers and professionals who are similarly conducting cancer research with the promise of turning the tide against cancer.  

For Harish, the award is meaningful beyond the opportunity to present at the conference. 

“I've been invested science my whole life, but now I’m able to see a tangible benefit to what I'm doing,” Harish said. “I'm seeing that the work I'm doing can really benefit someone else. Simply put, I'm grateful for the opportunity I have and the path ahead. Moving forward, I can give advice to people who are looking to do the same.

“I feel like I have the experience and credibility to give other people advice and help guide them in their career path. That's what I hope to gain from this conference and the award. It's not simply about the monetary value of the award; it’s about the honor of being seen as someone who's been doing work that is of value to other people.”

Throughout her time at SLU, Origanti has been her mentor and has seen Harish’s work firsthand. 

“Kavya’s quite hardworking and sincere in everything she does,” Origanti said. “It's so nice to see her blossom from her first day into an undergrad researcher who is passionate about her science, which is also a credit to Aparna Biswas and Poonam Roshan for guiding her in the labs and being role models. She’s a great example for the next generation of researchers and I’m excited about the future.”

Harish hopes her experience can be a lesson for other undergrads. 

“Coming into school, I didn’t know this is what I wanted to do, but now I love it and wouldn’t want to be doing anything else," Harish said. "Just getting your foot in the door, even if you're not 100 percent sure that you want to do research, is really important. So I hope this can open a lot of doors for other undergrads who are looking to do cancer research, and that this sets the stage for future applicants to also win this award.”