Young Science Stars From Georgia Tech

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The year began auspiciously for the College of Sciences. Among the elite group of millennials whom Forbes Magazine considered to be “America’s most important young entrepreneurs, creative leaders, and brightest stars” are two with Georgia Tech connections. Members of the group, dubbed 30 Under 30, are “changing the rules of the game” as they take on businesses, social issues, and institutions, according to Forbes Magazine.

Named as one of 30 Under 30 game-changing individuals in science was Lujendra Ojha, a graduate student in the School of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences. Ojha had been much in the news in 2015 because of his role in discovering water on Mars.

Joshua E. Allen, a 2008 B.S. Chemistry graduate, was named one of 30 Under 30 young stars in healthcare. Allen is currently the vice-president for R&D at Oncoceutics, a start-up biopharmaceutical company based in Philadelphia.

Although specializing in widely different fields, Allen and Ojha have more than basic science studies at Georgia Tech as their common denominator. Both had distinct family influences and personal predilections that led them to science.

In the University of Pennsylvania, where he went to graduate school, Allen discovered a different way to use the immune system to destroy cancer cells. Current practice of cancer immunotherapy relies on the action of immune cells, the human body’s army that wages war on infections and other foreign invaders. However, cancer cells have developed ways to “freeze” immune cells, making cancer invincible to the immune response. Cancer immunotherapy drugs now in the market revive the inactivated immune cells, enabling them to attack cancer cells.

Allen’s method uses a biochemical pathway in the immune response without requiring the work of immune cells. In looking at how immune cells trigger the death of tumor cells, Allen discovered a biochemical pathway involving a gene called TRAIL. When expressed, this gene produces a protein which, when bound to other proteins called death receptors, causes the cell to chew itself to death. “The TRAIL gene is in the genome of every cell in your body,” Allen said. A drug that can increase the gene’s expression in tumor cells will cause them “to commit suicide” without the help of immune cells.

For Allen, cancer is personal. His maternal grandfather died of lung cancer. His mother survived childhood leukemia. Then she battled cancer again for three years before succumbing to the disease when Allen was only 16 and his brother, Bradley, only 13. The loss not only was devastating but also confusing for siblings at different stages of life-- one on the verge of adulthood, the other just blooming in adolescence—despite only a three-year difference in age.

“Our mother was the driving force in our family,” Bradley said. “It was tough after she died.”

Joshua remembers the family’s despair when treatment options were exhausted: “She was basically told to go home and get her affairs in order.” Now he has turned that feeling of hopelessness into clear goals for cancer treatments: drugs that are better tolerated so that patients do not have to choose between life and quality of life, as well as options when standard therapies fail.

“Mom’s passing is what set [Joshua] on the path to cancer research,” Bradley said. According to Bradley, however, Joshua excelled in chemistry and was much into science as a student at Union Grove High School, in McDonough, Ga.

“He didn’t have a chemistry set,” Bradley recalled. “But he was interested in how things work, how things came together to make one product.”

Joshua attending Georgia Tech came as no surprise. “The engineering and science programs at Georgia Tech were among the elite in Georgia,” Bradley said. Joshua “had other options but chose Georgia Tech to get the best education but still be close to home, with me and Dad.”

Georgia Tech “provided an ecosystem for me to get acclimated to the culture of academic research and access to the diverse array of research labs, topics, and experiences,” Joshua said. Georgia Tech’s reputation came handy in applying to graduate school, too. “In interviews, the Georgia Tech undergraduate training automatically communicated that I had a rigorous background in science. Georgia Tech has a reputation for building a solid pure science foundation. And I felt that in my interviews.”

For now, Joshua and Oncoceutics are testing molecules that can induce cancer cells to self-destruct in hopes of offering patients a treatment that works when other options are exhausted.

Meanwhile, the discovery of water on Mars came about because of the keen observation skills of Lujendra Ojha. As an undergrad at the University of Arizona, he noticed streaks in certain pictures of the surface of Mars. Further observations revealed that the streaks were on sites facing the sun: they appeared in the Martian spring and faded in the winter. The periodic streaking coincided with temperature changes, strongly suggesting that water was flowing on Mars’ surface. Those findings were reported in the prestigious journal Science in 2011 (Science, 2011, 333, 750), when Ojha was still an undergrad.

Despite having published a paper in Science—an ambition of almost all young scientists—Ojha was initially unsure what to do after receiving his B.S. degree.

His personal life was chaotic at the time, he said, declining to discuss further. Nonetheless, he knew he was strongly inclined to science, influenced by his father, Tank Prasad Ojha, a geologist. “He studies the evolution of the Himalayas,” Ojha said about his father. “I used to go on field trips with him and got inspiration from him.”

Ojha also recalls his dissatisfaction as a child in how the world was explained to him from the point of view of religion. Science had a natural appeal to him, he said. Growing up, he recalled, he wanted to build a time machine.

Instead he had proven that water exists in present-day Mars through his research with James Wray, an assistant professor in the School of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences.

Wray had been working with instruments that could detect the chemical signatures of compounds on the surface of Mars. With Ojha and others, he looked for the fingerprints of water. What they found were signs of liquid water trapped in crystals of perchlorate, a compound that is more abundant on Mars than on Earth (Nature Geosci., 2015, 8, 829). The rest is history.

Ojha expects to complete his dissertation this summer. What’s next depends on whether he gets a job in science, he said. “It’s easy to be a grad student. The real hardship comes when you leave grad school.”

Wray, on the other hand, is optimistic about Ojha’s prospects. “I think you’ll be offered jobs based on your success so far,” he told Ojha.   


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    Will Rusk
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    A. Maureen Rouhi
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