Traveling the world in search of science

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By Gabriel Vasquez

After growing up in an academic realm immersed in science and technology, and living under a roof with two scientists he referred to as Mom and Dad, 23-year-old Los Alamos whiz kid Naveen Sinha has gotten to travel the world sharing his passion for science.

Replace the rock star posters with vine-like strands of cable crawling up bookshelves stocked with sci-fi books and you’ve got a 17-year-old Sinha’s Los Alamos bedroom.

Where other students had entertainment centers, Sinha had an oscilloscope. Instead of days-old laundry, strewn about were homemade motion detectors, shortwave radios and circuit boards.

“As a result of growing up in Los Alamos and competing in various science fairs, I continued on the path of an experimental physicist,” Sinha said.

As a junior in high school, Sinha beat out 1,200 other gifted students to take the top prize in Intel’s 2002 International Science and Engineering Fair. At the Siemens Westinghouse Technology Competition, Sinha brought home regional honors. In 2003, Intel cut him a $25,000 check for nabbing fifth place in its yearly Talent Search.

Awards from the Acoustical Society of America, NASA, DuPont and the Society of Exploration Geophysicists all fit snugly under his belt.

But these accomplishments sit only on the bottom of countless others – truly too many to list in one article. A seasoned veteran would be envious.

The latest however, is Sinha’s return from a research expedition at the National University of Singapore.

“After a relaxing summer in New Mexico, I left on my overseas adventure,” said Sinha, who graduated from Stanford with a degree in physics in the spring of 2007. “My flight arrived soon after midnight, and with only a couple of hours sleep, I showed up to work later that day … which was made up of about a dozen researchers from China who conversed in Mandarin most of the time.”

Although Sinha was more apt to solving problems having to do with the motion of matter, space and time, he was confronted with a more edifying cultural obstacle.

“I was the only English speaker in the lab,” he said. “I decided to use that to help them. They all were eager to learn, so it worked out quite well.”

During his 10-month stay, Sinha worked on developing a set of “optical tweezers” capable of exerting a constant force on a piece of DNA.

“At first, I was bewildered by the assortment of little tubes and acronyms, which all seemed vaguely familiar thanks to a previous summer job in the Bioscience Division at LANL,” he said.

His second project, and arguably the more successful of the two, was in Tethered Particle Motion (TPM).

“It’s basically a way to measure the strand of DNA, by attaching it to a small polystyrene sphere,” he said.

The purpose of the research, Sinha said, was to study the mechanical properties of a single strand of DNA to monitor its length, and ability to wrap around a polystyrene sphere that essentially makes it visible, and maneuverable with the aid of a laser under an optical microscope.

After a few bumps in the road and the construction of dozens of DNA-conducive chambers, Sinha was able to apply a functional protocol based on the ideas of Steven Koch, an experimental biophysicist at the University of New Mexico.

“It was a revelation,” Sinha said. “I was getting data within a week. Instead of a few blurry videos, I (had) no shortage of quantitative data to analyze.”

Sinha was able to leave behind the novel method of his TPM research for the other scientists apply to their own research, which he said they found quite helpful.

“I gave some demonstrations to other lab members so that they knew how to use the technique,” he said. “It’s a very useful tool for studying single molecules of DNA.”

Although he cites the ability to tutor the other lab workers in presenting their scientific achievements and advanced scientific communication as “one of the most satisfying” aspects of his trip, Sinha said his leisure time on the island was also very self-fulfilling.

“I didn’t come to Singapore to spend all my time in a windowless laboratory,” he said. “I wanted to experience as much of the local culture as I could. The island has the reputation of being one of the food capitals of the world, so I pursued cooking classes, wine tastings, spice demos, free samplings and more with gusto.”

He also attended a German Film Festival, wandered around scale models of the island at a local museum, helped judge applicants for the Stanford Book Prize competition, attended a “mooncake-crazy” mid-autumn festival, and even ran in the Army Half-Marathon.

Sinha departed the island in May 2008, and shortly thereafter attended the 58th Nobel meeting in Lindau, Germany – a gathering of 500 young scientists from around the world and 25 Nobel laureates, where he got to share some of the concepts of his recent studies with some of the world’s brightest.

“Based on my experience in Singapore, I now realize how passionate I am about science communication,” he said. “I’d like to work on some areas on how scientists communicate their ideas to other scientists, politicians and the general public. I think this is a real important area.”

Sinha plans on attending Harvard University in the fall, where he is currently enrolled in a PhD program in applied physics.