The hardest part about Bedford High School junior Druthi Yuvaraj’s video project on epigenetics was not the complex scientific subject.
“It was so hard to cut down,” she explained. “I had to leave out a lot of comment and make it as concise as possible.”
That’s because Druthi prepared the recording as an entry into a worldwide competition called Breakthrough Junior Challenge, with a limit of two minutes. And she recently learned that her entry (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SJ1zqMCo2jY) is one of 30 semifinalists for 2023. Druthi thinks the winner will be announced in January. There’s an array of prizes, including a college scholarship.
The Breakthrough Junior Challenge is a global science video contest, established in 2015 by the scientist and philanthropist Yuri Milner. The junior challenge, sponsors say, “encourages students to create engaging and imaginative videos that demonstrate difficult scientific concepts and theories in the physical or life sciences.”
“I’ve always been inspired by science and the STEM fields,” Druthi, 16, said in a recent after-school interview. “I really want to get into medicine because I want to help people and one day find a cure for cancer. I have cared for a lot of loved ones with cancer.”
This isn’t Druthi’s first Breakthrough success. Two years ago, her video finished in the top 10 percent; last year she placed in the highest five percent. She said she was surprised by her high placement this year “because I had a summer program that I needed to complete just before the deadline and I didn’t have a lot of time.”
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, epigenetics is “the study of how behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way genes work. Unlike genetic changes, epigenetic changes are reversible and do not change DNA sequence, but they can change how the body reads a DNA sequence.”
Druthi attempted to explain epigenetics in layperson’s language. “Say you have a gene that codes for Alzheimer’s and it is in your genetic history. I want people to know that how they live their lives can directly influence whether the gene shows up later in life.
“By leading a good life, you might never get something that your genes are coded for. It’s not predetermined,” she continued. And similarly, unhealthy behavior can “induce genetic modifications to pass on to future generations.”
Much of what she defines as “a good life” is self-evident: diet and sleep, for example. But Druthi also emphasized “the importance of living a stress-free life and trying to manage your time well. It’s very hard in today’s world.”
The best way to relieve stress, Druthi continued, is “just making good life decisions. Those choices can be very important and allow you to live your best life.
“Our lives are getting more exposed to chemicals daily and these things can cause problems later in life. It’s very important that medicine sets the pace,” she said, noting, “I have learned so much about different topics that I wouldn’t have without this competition.”
She thanked her mother, Deepa Munuswamy for “helping me with everything I need,” including recording and editing the entry with only an iPhone. She also gave equal credit to her dad, Yuvaraj Kathirvel, for his support. Classmates assisted in various degrees. Charlie Desjardins “taught me the app I use to animate all my sequences,” Druthi said. And Makayla Noun eats a portion of a mango at the start of the video.
Druthi’s resume also features a Public Health Museum summer program called “Outbreak!” and she hopes to become a summer oncology research intern at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. She has completed a variety of summer programs, including an online neuroscience course sponsored by Harvard.
Druthi has other interests besides scientific ones. She has enjoyed basketball for years and began team play as a BHS freshman, has served on the fall play stage crew, and sings Indian classical music. “I also do art, more traditional media like painting and sketching and also a little digital art,” she said, adding, “I’m busy a lot.”