Flinn Scholar wins Marshall for work in the biosciences

November 30, 2005

By Flinn Foundation

Two years ago Flinn Scholar Ajit Divakaruni, a University of Arizona undergraduate, went out on a whim and contacted a world-renowned biochemist, asking him for a spot in his lab.

Dr. Martin Brand, a leading expert in mitochondria and energy regulation at the University of Cambridge, granted Divakaruni’s request and brought him on to work for six months as a full-time research student.

Next year Divakaruni will return to Brand’s lab to continue his work in the biosciences. But this time he will not only have the support of Brand but also the backing of one of the country’s most prestigious scholarships–the Marshall Scholarship.

The Marshall Scholarship, which pays for two years of graduate study at a university in the United Kingdom, is awarded annually to only 40 students nationwide. Divakaruni is Arizona’s only Marshall Scholar this year and the first Arizonan to receive it in three years.

For Divakaruni, who is triple-majoring in biochemistry, mathematics, and molecular and cellular biology, the opportunity to pursue a doctorate in biochemistry at University of Cambridge will be invaluable preparation for a future career in developing treatments for diabetes and obesity.

“Estimates have placed the number of individuals that will be affected by diabetes and obesity at close to 300 million worldwide in the next twenty years,” he said. “There is so much potential for people entering this area of research.”

Specifically, under Brand, Divakaruni will take an interdisciplinary approach to studying proteins that have the potential, if altered, to treat diabetes and obesity. Divakaruni will incorporate experimental chemistry, protein design techniques, and mathematical modeling into his doctoral program.

Leading into this research are projects Divakaruni has already done. For over two years he worked to construct a mathematical model of tumor metabolism. After studying UCP activation for six months in Brand’s lab, Divakaruni moved on to Yale University where he studied under another leading bioscientist, Lynne Regan, an authority on protein design.

In Regan’s lab, Divakaruni worked individually on a bioinformatics project among eight postdoctoral researchers. Bioinformatics is the management and analysis of data using advanced computing techniques for biological research.

Divakaruni calls his experience in Regan’s lab one of the “single greatest challenges” of his academic life. He is currently preparing a single-author manuscript under her supervision.

Divakaruni’s ultimate goal is to continue his research at a large state university. The Flinn Scholar, who kept a cactus on his desk while working in Cambridge last year, has his sights set on returning to Arizona.

“I grew up in Arizona, and have attended Arizona public schools since the age of seven, so I have a strong, personal connection with wanting to improve and be a part of Arizona’s public education system,” he said. “I would like nothing more than to someday return to help the education system and the state as a whole become increasingly competitive in the areas of biosciences.”

For more information:

UA triple major wins prestigious Brit scholarship,” Arizona Daily Star, 11/28/2005

Scholar plans to research, teach,” Arizona Daily Wildcat, 11/29/2005