News

Rosa Parks student wants to cure cancer — and be president

Rosa Parks fifth-grader Prakriti Shukla works on spooling strawberry DNA at the Fred Hutchinson Research Center in Seattle during a field trip with her class. - Courtesy of Nylkahlid Jungmayer
Rosa Parks fifth-grader Prakriti Shukla works on spooling strawberry DNA at the Fred Hutchinson Research Center in Seattle during a field trip with her class.
— image credit: Courtesy of Nylkahlid Jungmayer

Three years ago, students from Rosa Parks Elementary School on Redmond Ridge performed a play for and in honor of a fellow student who had been diagnosed with leukemia.

As a second-grader, Prakriti Shukla participated in that performance. She knew the boy — who was in kindergarten at the time — and his family as they lived in the same neighborhood.

“It really affected him and his family,” she said about the boy’s illness. “It affected the whole school.”

The experience affected Prakriti as well, and it has stuck with her all these years. Now in the fifth grade, the 10-year-old has chosen blood and brain cancer as the topics of a year-long research project for her pull-out Quest class at Elizabeth Blackwell Elementary School in Sammamish.

“I chose cancer because a lot of people have cancer and I wanted to help them,” she said.

A LASTING EFFECT

Ritu Gupta, Prakriti’s mother, had not realized how much their young neighbor — who fought and won his battle with cancer — and his illness had affected her daughter until Prakriti asked Gupta for stamps one day in November 2013.

The stamps were for letters Prakriti had written to send to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and the University of Washington Medical Center (UWMC), requesting some information to help with her research project.

When Gupta learned this and her daughter’s topic of choice for her Quest project, she had a few concerns — mainly about the amount of work it would require, pointing out that Prakriti would be working on this in addition to her regular schoolwork. Gupta also said her daughter’s Quest class only meets once a week, so she may not be able to get help from her teacher as much as she may need.

“It’s all done by her, independently,” Gupta said.

She was also concerned that Prakriti would get her hopes up about the letters she sent and not receive a response.

“I just didn’t want her to be sad,” Gupta said.

However, they received a response from Fred Hutch shortly after the letters were sent, inviting her, her teacher and class to visit the center to learn more about what the organization does.

AN EXCITING OPPORTUNITY

Prakriti’s Quest class at Blackwell could not go due to scheduling and logistical conflicts but her fifth-grade class at Rosa Parks was able to visit Fred Hutch last Friday.

Pull-out Quest instructor Nancy Pfaff added that each of her students are researching different topics for their projects, ranging from computer programming to art, so a visit to Fred Hutch would not work for her class as it would only apply to Prakriti’s project. However, Pfaff said she was delighted to hear that Prakriti’s class at Rosa Parks was able to go.

“It’s an exciting thing,” she said about their opportunity.

Kristian Brekke, Prakriti’s fifth-grade teacher at Rosa Parks, agreed. He said the field trip was an opportunity for his students to see the inquiry process they have been studying in science applied to a real-life situation.

During their visit, the students learned how to spool DNA from strawberries as part of a hands-on science activity.

Naomi Bogenschutz, a volunteer with Fred Hutch’s Science Education Partnership, led the activity.

“(The students) were excited, curious and asked a lot of very intelligent questions, which are qualities that every scientist should have,” she said, adding that she enjoyed watching the students work and their reactions throughout the activity.

This was not Bogenschutz’s first time leading the strawberry activity, but this was the youngest group she’s worked with. She was worried the students might be too young to understand what they were doing, but she said the activity was a “huge success.”

“They had clearly been thinking about cells and DNA before they came to the Hutch, which is a testament to the excellent preparation their teacher, Kristian Brekke, gave them,” Bogenschutz said. “I couldn’t believe how much his fifth-graders knew about DNA already.”

They also met with Damon May, co-director of Fred Hutch’s optides research group, which focuses on developing molecules engineered to attack cancer cells without harming the healthy cells around them. May also talked with the students about Tumor Paint, a tiny protein that comes from scorpion venom attached to a tiny flashlight that can bind selectively to brain tumors. The tiny flashlight causes the tumors to glow.

“With Tumor Paint, instead of feeling around with fingers and thumbs to try to figure out what’s healthy brain and what’s tumor, surgeons will be able to see the tumors glowing,” May said. “In an operation where a few millimeters either way can mean life, death or permanent neurological damage, this has the potential to revolutionize treatment.”

In addition to learning from May, Prakriti also had the opportunity to interview Dr. Jim Olson, the clinical researcher at Fred Hutch whose team developed Tumor Paint, for her project.

“It was really interesting,” she said.

BENEFICIAL FOR ALL

As a strong proponent of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education, Gupta said she was glad her daughter and her classmates had the opportunity to visit Fred Hutch and is proud Prakriti was the one to make it happen.

“As a parent, it’s just uplifting,” Gupta said.

This was the first time May had spoken with kids about science, and while he was initially nervous, he praised the students for being a “great audience.”

“They were impressively smart and prepared — they even knew the names of the DNA nucleotides,” he said. “I think it’s really important to show kids that science can be fun and exciting.”

May added that as a father, meeting with the students was good practice for talking with his own daughter when she is old enough to understand it.

According to Brekke, his class’s visit to Fred Hutch was impactful as his students continue to comment on it. Meeting Bogenschutz was particularly impressive to the students. Brekke said Bogenschutz was a phenomenal role model particularly for his female students who may not have many young women to look up to in STEM.

Bogenschutz said, “You never know the age at which someone might be inspired to become a scientist…I think it’s extremely important to give kids (and adults) exposure to science throughout their lives, and I’m glad we were able to provide this experience to such young students.”

Brekke added that his students were also impressed with how everyone they met at Fred Hutch

treated them, saying many of the kids told him, “’We were treated like adults.’”

A BRIGHT FUTURE

From this situation, Gupta saw a young leader in her daughter in many ways: Bringing the opportunity to visit Fred Hutch to her teacher and peers; showing Fred Hutch, which usually gets visits from older students in college and high school, a new demographic to reach out to and inspiring Gupta to make the center her charity of choice through her employer Honeywell Aerospace.

And these early leadership skills will not be wasted on Prakriti, who has big plans for her future.

“I really want to cure cancer, but I also want to be president,” she said.

We encourage an open exchange of ideas on this story's topic, but we ask you to follow our guidelines for respecting community standards. Personal attacks, inappropriate language, and off-topic comments may be removed, and comment privileges revoked, per our Terms of Use. Please see our FAQ if you have questions or concerns about using Facebook to comment.

Read the latest Green Edition

Browse the print edition page by page, including stories and ads.

Aug 1 edition online now. Browse the archives.