High school scientist encouraged to pursue his dream

Research conducted in UMMS labs, with UMMS mentors, qualifies for national competition

By Kristen O’Reilly

UMass Medical School Communications

June 15, 2012
  Rahi Punjabi with Beth McCormick in her lab.

Rahi Punjabi is an educator’s dream: curious, hardworking, highly motivated—and bold beyond his years. When the high school  sophomore decided he wanted to pursue a science fair project that required more than a high school laboratory to complete, he did what few other 15 year olds might consider: He contacted researchers at UMass Medical School and asked if he could work in their labs during his February and April vacations.


Not your typical request, but one Beth McCormick, PhD, professor of microbiology & physiological systems, found hard to ignore. She read Punjabi’s email describing a highly credible project, as well as his past awards and laboratory experience—far more than you might expect for someone so young—and found his enthusiasm for science irresistible.

“One of the reasons I’m in academia is to encourage those who show an interest in science,” said Dr. McCormick. “Because he obviously showed such talent, I thought I would be doing him and the Medical School a disservice if I didn’t try to help him achieve his goals and nurture his abilities.”

Punjabi attends the Advanced Math and Science Academy Charter School in Marlborough and was pursuing an idea that came out of a microbiology project he conducted last year that won him a first-place prize in the Massachusetts State Science and Engineering Fair and a fourth place in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. In this year’s project, he tested the efficacy of garlic in reducing bacterial infection in individuals with cystic fibrosis.

He concluded that based on research into garlic’s antimicrobial activity, synergy with currently prescribed antibiotics, and its effect on biofilm formation and bacterial communication, garlic in combination with a pharmaceutical agent might be a promising therapy.

“This was a unique opportunity to work in a professional research lab,” said Punjabi. “They were excited to host me and very welcoming.”

“What I was really impressed with is that the way he thinks about science far exceeds his age,” said McCormick. “He had read all the relevant papers and knew all the players in the field. He worked hard when he was here, staying late and working on the weekends. I even had to tell him to take a break.”

The research he conducted over his February vacation gave him enough data to compete in the Worcester Regional Science and Engineering Fair and qualify for the Massachusetts State Science and Engineering Fair. After completing his experiments and refining his presentation over April vacation, he won a first-place prize at the state fair and was selected as one of two representatives from Massachusetts to participate in the 2012 National BioGENEius Challenge, which takes place in Boston starting on Saturday, June 16.

He visited campus again this week to meet with McCormick and her colleagues to discuss his presentation for the BioGENEius competition, which involves research posters and oral presentations in front of a panel of biotech judges.

Punjabi said he is keeping his options open as to which direction his interests may take him—medical, research, or both. He’ll continue to work at UMass Medical School labs as in an intern over the summer, and continue to learn as much as he can from the professionals.

“Whatever the accolades he receives are secondary to the learning experience,” said McCormick. “If we can inspire him to reach his goals, that’s why we do it.”