Megha Joshi poses in a science classroom at South Salem High School. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)
This profile is part of a series on Class of 2019 high school graduates. Salem Reporter asked high schools in Salem and Keizer to select an outstanding graduate – someone who accomplished something significant, whether through art, academics, advocacy or overcoming obstacles to graduate. We’ll be sharing their stories over the next week.
Few high school students get to work in a cancer research lab while still in school. But South Salem High School senior Megha Joshi is heading into her third summer at Oregon Health & Science University, studying nanotechnology to improve cancer drug delivery.
Gaurav Sahay, an associate professor and the lab’s director, said he’s discussed Joshi’s aptitude and ambition with other faculty and reached the same conclusion: “We have to be nice to Megha because she might come back as our boss some day,” he said.
Joshi, born south of Salem in Lebanon became interested in technology and engineering in seventh grade, after researching natural disasters.
Then a student at Blanchet Catholic School, Joshi wanted to build something that could help with disaster recovery. She settled on a solar-powered water filtration system.
She didn’t know anything about the process, but consulted her father, an environmental engineer who served as her “personal chauffeur” on multiple trips to Lowe’s to buy parts. She taught herself much of what she needed to know through watching YouTube tutorials, she said.
“I’m a generally very stubborn person,” she said, explaining how she built a system from scratch.
That work earned her a semifinalist slot in a national science and engineering competition and amplified her desire to learn.
Joshi’s parents both work in science and technology and have been supportive of her interest. Her mother is a data engineering manager at Salem Health.
Next on her list was redesigning the classic high school desk to provide better back support and adjust with student height and body size.
“I got really sick of the desks that we have in school,” she said. A survey of her classmates showed many had similar problems, so she came up with a new design.
After her freshman year of high school, Joshi worked in an Oregon State University lab focused on plant biotechnology and researched a gene-editing technology called CRISPR that can prevent genetically modified poplar trees from reproducing.
Joshi was interested in the project to bridge the debate over genetically modified organisms. The idea was to create a poplar tree that’s genetically engineered, but can’t reproduce in the wild, preventing the species from spreading its modified genes to wild organisms.
She got a ride to Corvallis every day through a family friend, but her carpool got her to the building at 8 a.m., a few hours before the other scientists started work. To pass the time, she began reading scientific papers “so I wouldn’t feel really behind in the lab meetings,” she said.
That helped her feel less intimidated by the jargon of research science, and more comfortable approaching other scientists with questions.
Megha Joshi talks with friends in Warren Trotter’s math class at South Salem High School. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)
The technology she studied at OSU has also shown promise in treating cancer, so Joshi reached out to OHSU to continue her research. That led her to Sahay.
The university has some programs for high schoolers, but Joshi reached out through other professors she knew and asked Sahay to work in his lab.
“She did not come through those regular tracks,” Sahay said. “I was surprised. Being a high school student, she already had a lot of experience in the lab.”
Joshi began working in Sahay’s lab in the summer of 2017, renting an apartment in Portland to avoid the daily commute. She returned in 2018 and will be there again this summer before heading to Yale.
She’s earned more than $14,000 in scholarships toward college, mostly from science competitions.
Her work involves isolating exosomes, a structure released from cells that shows promise for delivering drugs directly to particular parts of the body. Joshi used a centrifuge and other methods to isolate exosomes from other cell parts, then took photos using an electron microscope to see how well each process worked.
Sahay said Joshi has helped an undergraduate student prepare a presentation for a scientific conference.
“I was astounded and very proud as well that she knew the level of scientific details that go into these things,” he said.
She impressed other researchers by attending nanotechnology panel discussion with a poster detailing her work and asked insightful questions of other researchers, he said.
“In one of the lab meetings she started talking about how grants are written,” he said. “That’s basically what we do at a faculty level.”
Warren Trotter, Joshi’s math teacher at South, said she’s “a joy” in class and able to persevere through challenging work by using humor.
“Humor gives you some of the fearlessness to try something that may not work,” he said. It’s not unusual for Joshi to come to his room during breaks or his prep period to work out a challenging problem on the whiteboard.
Joshi has already finished all the math classes South offers after two years of high school calculus, so she’s now taking a college multivariable calculus class, he said.
She also plays violin in orchestra and organized a TEDx symposium for young people in Salem in 2017.
As a Pacific Northwester, Joshi isn’t sure how she’ll adjust to the snowier winters at Yale. She’s had some experience living on her own thanks to her OHSU summers.
“I’ve learned I’m not a great cook, but we’re learning,” she said. Trader Joe’s meals have been staples for her, so she’s not looking forward to going without in Connecticut.
She plans to work in biomedical engineering and wants other young people to know they don’t have to wait to start a career in science.
“I think that’s a huge problem in the science industry – people think whatever your age is, you have limitations,” she said.
Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.
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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.