One of Glamour Magazine‘s Top 10 College Women in 2007
Member of the 2008 All-USA College Academic First Team
I’ll never forget meeting Melis Anahtar at FLP — she has such a beautiful smile that you’d think that she’s the daughter of a Crest employee. One night my first semester here, I was struggling with an 18.02 problem. My roommate couldn’t figure it out either, so I decided to ask Melis for help over AIM — she patiently explained to me how to solve it, but I remained confused. I’d already taken half an hour of her time, so I thought that it’d be imposing of me to ask if I could get help from her in person — much to my surprise, she asked if I wanted to meet her in person. It was a no-brainer — I hustled to Next House as fast as possible and practically flew into her room. As I caught my breath, she took me through every step of the problem once again, and walked out with a smile on her face as she left to go wherever she was heading.
That story captures the qualities about Melis that inspire me everyday — brilliance, kindness, and humility, all of which she displays so effortlessly. I’m grateful to have her as a role model, as are so many other people at MIT.
With graduation a few weeks away, I decided to profile her for my blog. At first I thought that I’d try to narrate her story by myself, but I soon realized that doing so would be a daunting task — she has done so much research and contributed to MIT in so many ways that I wouldn’t know where to begin. So, I decided to let her “write” this entry in some sense — I asked her a few questions about her upbringing and her experiences. Prepare to be dazzled…
How did you get interested in science?
Both of my parents are architects, so I grew up in their studio and developed a passion for designing, building, and drawing. I loved playing with Legos and making “cities” out of trash like old tissues boxes and paper towel rolls. I was also lucky to grow up in the D.C. metropolitan area, where there were many science-related extracurricular activities available like science clubs taught by scientists from NIST and the NIH on the weekends, electricity workshops offered through the 4-H, and a problem solving competition called Odyssey of the Mind (which I did from 1st – 11th grade).
Which experiences, before and at MIT, have been most formative in your development as a person, thinker, and so forth?
I attended Math, Science, and Computer Science Magnet programs in middle and high school. They were wonderful, nurturing environments where I got exposed to advanced biology, computer science, chemistry, math, and so forth. My passion for research and science began in earnest in 10th grade, when I became fascinated with biology and learned about all of the “crazy” processes that occur in our bodies. I was able to take advanced classes in genetics and cellular physiology that also made me curious about biological mechanisms.
Another part of the Magnet curriculum was the senior research project. It was a tremendous opportunity to spend two summers (after my sophomore and junior years of high school) working in the Center for Engineering in Medicine (CEM) at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). My mom and sister moved up to Boston with me and I did a project in microfluidics, where I created a device that separates 99% of the white blood cells in a few drops of blood. In the future, this device could be used for personalizing medicine. It was incredible to go from designing a device on the computer, making it in the clean room, and then testing it with rat blood. I’ll never forget watching the red blood cells explode as they went coursed through the device, and seeing that only white blood cells were coming out of the outlet. Through that experience, I really fell in love with bioengineering, became a finalist in the Intel Science Talent Search, got 1st place in Engineering at the International Science and Engineering Fair, and got to publish a paper in Analytical Chemistry where I was the second author. Most importantly, it was at MGH that I learned about MIT. Everyone there told me how it was the best engineering school and that I just had to go there!
In what labs have you worked, and what research did you conduct in each?
Freshman-year IAP – May: I worked in the lab of Professor Jianzhu Chen at the MIT Center for Cancer Research. We were trying to develop an efficient method of promoting cellular uptake of siRNA. I tested formulations for pulmonary delivery of siRNA in vivo using two non-toxic carriers, polyethylenimine and poly-beta-amino ester. Through my research in the Chen Lab, I became proficient at handling animals and learned the fundamentals of gene therapy, drug delivery, and cell cultures. I also further developed my interests in genetics and virology.
It was fascinating to apply the latest discoveries in biology to such a practical and extremely important problem as treating influenza. The challenges of delivering RNA to cells captured my imagination, and made me very interested in the application of nanotechnology to this problem. Obviously, nanotechnology is still in its infancy, but it has great potential for future diagnostic and treatment techniques. Thus, I arranged to spend the summer of 2005 at NIST, studying the use of optical tweezers to create nanowire-based devices. Nanowires are the basic building block of the nanoscale world, and while we have many different types available to us, there are very few tools to manipulate and assemble them directly. One of the few such tools is optical tweezers, which use the momentum of photons to move around and trap objects smaller than ten microns. I used them to manipulate semiconducting zinc oxide nanowires and create junctions and parallel wires, with the goal of eventually making more complex structures.
Sophomore and junior academic years: I worked in the BioInstrumentation Lab. My main focus was testing the efficacy of three generations of a needle-free injector (NFI) that had been developed there. Conventional hypodermic syringes used for drug injection present many hazards due to accidental needle sticks and improper disposal. The NFI eliminates the necessity for a needle by puncturing the skin using a high-velocity liquid jet. In addition to being safer than a hypodermic needle, it may also have higher patient compliance rates due to a less painful injection. I was able to participate in the research and development phases, and worked simultaneously with mechanical engineers and a biologist. From side projects, I learned circuit design and control systems.
[Check out her essay on NFIs at http://web.mit.edu/mitir/2008/spring/needle.html.]
Summers after sophomore, junior, and (soon to be) senior years: I worked in the Human Biochemical Genetics Lab at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI). The lab specializes in rare genetic disorders caused by problems in vesicle-related organelle formation and trafficking. I chose the lab for the opportunity to conduct genetics research for the clinical director of the NHGRI, Dr. Bill Gahl. Every Thursday morning, we had the opportunity to shadow him on clinical rounds and see him transition flawlessly between the bench and bedside. The research has been especially meaningful because of the clinical applications; the decision to return to the lab this summer was a no-brainer. I couldn’t seem to get the research out of my mind, and I worked non-stop during the day but couldn’t have been happier about it.
As a summer student in 2006, I studied Hermansky-Pudlak Syndrome, a genetic disease which causes albinism, excessive bleeding, and sometimes pulmonary fibrosis and colitis, and also met patients affected by the disorder. In 2007, I studied disease markers for pulmonary fibrosis, with the goal of developing outcome parameters for clinical trials involving the most seriously affected patients. At the same time, I studied patients with Smith-Magenis Syndrome, a developmental disorder that causes autism and inverse circadian patterns of sleep. I worked directly with Dr. Ann Smith, who first described the condition in 1986, and performed real-time PCR on patient DNA to determine the breakpoints of their large deletion on chromosome 17.
Finally, I did my senior thesis project (September 2007-May 2008) in the Lab for Multiscale Regenerative Technology under the guidance of Professor Sangeeta Bhatia. I designed and synthesized biocompatible silicon nanoparticles that can be used to image tumors using MRI.