UIC’s latest Goldwater Scholar aims to build first living cell prototype

Ashma Pandya, Honors College member and sophomore majoring in biochemistry
Ashma Pandya, Honors College member and sophomore majoring in biochemistry with a minor in computer science, was named a Goldwater Scholar.

Ashma Pandya held a human brain in her hands at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi during her junior year of high school. The experience led her to a question. 

“How did life first emerge from a primordial chemical soup of peptide chains and amino acids?” she wondered.

The question has driven her pursuit of science and eventually evolved into a dedicated research mission — to build a prototype of the first living cell.

Pandya produced her first research publication as a senior in high school. The co-authored book chapter correlating antibiotic resistance to bacterial evolution was informed by her internship at the Bioinformatics Centre within the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research’s Institute of Microbial Technology in India.

Shortly after her family immigrated from India to Naperville in August 2019, she continued this research interest at the University of Illinois Chicago, where she is a member of the Honors College.

As a sophomore majoring in biochemistry with a minor in computer science in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Pandya’s self-designed undergraduate studies encompass advanced topics in organic, inorganic and physical chemistry, along with biology courses covering genetics, cell biology and animal physiology. Completing the computer science minor along with upper-level mathematics courses will build her skills and ability to carry out hybrid research plans that blend experimental and computational analysis.

“I am confident that my undergraduate coursework will provide me with a broad knowledge bank and a sharp analytical mindset necessary to boost my research career,” she said.

Pandya’s research and academic success early in her college career has led to recognition from the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation. She is one of over 400 U.S. college students recently named a recipient of the Goldwater Scholarship, a $7,500 award that will cover tuition, books and related fees during the 2021-22 and 2022-23 academic years. It is the most prestigious scientific honor for sophomores and juniors in the U.S.

Since February 2020, Pandya has worked in the laboratory of Andy Nguyen, UIC assistant professor of chemistry, where some of her research has dealt with the design of nanocages that carry an anticancer drug in the body and aim to deliver the medication only when it reaches the tumor.

“Currently, even the most successful anticancer drugs fail to distinguish between healthy and cancerous cells, so much so that only 1% of the administered drug dose actually reaches the tumor. This causes a lot of toxic side effects and limits the patient population that can be treated,” she said.

Nguyen describes Pandya’s intellect, maturity and curiosity as “exemplary and rare,” and considers her the top undergraduate he’s encountered, as well as an inspirational and dedicated member of the lab’s team.

“Ashma is a research-minded person who is unafraid to ask questions and will not be satisfied until an answer makes perfect sense to her. It is obvious to me that she will do something great with her career in science,” he said.

In addition to some yet-to-be-published co-authored research papers, Pandya recently presented her research at the National Conference of Undergraduate Research and the UIC Impact and Research Week. Her current work involves the fundamentals of peptide chemistry, which will play a significant role in her future work as an origin of life researcher, while the spectroscopic techniques she uses have several applications in biophysics.

“My experience at the Nguyen lab has enriched my professional development, broadened my skill set beyond my course curriculum and given me the opportunity to build valuable long-term mentoring relationships with established scientists,” Pandya said.

She has received various university honors, such as the Chancellor’s Undergraduate Research Award, two Honors College Research Grants, the Honors College Travel and Conference Grant, and the President’s Volunteer Service Award.

After her expected graduation in May 2023, Pandya envisions completing a Ph.D. in biophysics at a lab that focuses on studying the origin of life and the evolution of biomolecules. She hopes to work as a postdoctoral researcher at an astrobiology lab at the Scripps Research Institute or NASA.

Eventually, she wants to perform research at the university level while leading a group of scientists from a variety of STEM fields who “pool their intellectual enterprise to synthesize the primordial cell.”

Pandya’s campus activities have included serving as an undergraduate teaching assistant for a computational biology course, a physics peer leader at the UIC Math and Science Learning Center, and a mentor for the IGNITE Exploring Leaders Program conducted by UIC Student Leadership and Civic Engagement.

“I hope that my story inspires young women of the future to dare to follow their dreams. I strive to be the role model I needed as a woman of color in STEM,” she said.

UIC’s Office of External Fellowships provides advising and assistance to current undergraduate and professional school students in finding and applying for a range of nationally and internationally competitive fellowships, scholarships and grants, among them the Goldwater Scholarship.

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