Wichita State discovers more with international young minds

Madhulika Srikanth is 24 but looks younger. When John Bardo learned what she’s doing at his engineering school, the president of Wichita State University talked about her with bemused pride.

“We’ve got a young kid working with nanobots to treat cancer,” he told people. “She looks young enough, if she ever goes out, she probably gets carded every place she walks in.”

Hearing this later, Srikanth grinned. It’s actually nanotechnology, and not nanobots, she said. And between classes, lab work and work as a teaching assistant she logs 55 to 60 hours of study and work every week; there’s little time for going out.

Besides finding promising leads in cancer treatment research, Srikanth has become for Bardo and other top administrators another example of the value of 1,800 international students studying at or working with WSU. At a university that prides itself on research, she’s one of the more promising Ph.D. candidates.

When a university finds somebody that smart, that driven, what does it do with her? There are hundreds such students at WSU, administrators say.

And when the student realizes what the life possibilities are, what does she do with herself?

Born in India

Srikanth was born an only child in Bhilai, a city of about 625,000 in eastern central India. Her father is an accountant; her mother tutors young students in math and science. As a child Srikanth liked the process of cooking, and said, with the syntax that a child would use, that she wanted to be “a cooker;” her father teased her, “saying that I could be a cooker one day, then a spoon, then a sauce pan.”

From age 9 onward, she danced Kathak, a classical Indian dance genre involving the swirl of skirts and enough twirls and other aerobics to put most athletes flat on the floor. In high school she discovered the processes of science.

In college she danced, and studied materials technology at India’s National Institute of Technology in Jaipur. She got intrigued with research. “So interesting,” she said. “New materials, how do you make them, and test them?”

As with cooking, she liked the processes.

International students in India need excellent grades to get to the U.S., but sometimes choose their college the way she did: Relatives and friends of her family had academic ties to WSU.

Universities compete for international students. About 9,700 are studying in Kansas.

Armin Gerhard, WSU’s executive director of international education, was in Bangkok years ago, and went to one of the bigger banks in Bangkok, a business that regularly sent students to the U.S.

“I was shocked,” he said, “to hear one of the bank vice presidents telling people there, ‘if you want to know how to treat Thai students properly, take a look at Wichita State University.’

“We’re better known in some countries than we are here,” he said.

A teacher’s passion

After she arrived at WSU in 2010, Srikanth worked two semesters in the Advanced Networking Research Institute, a WSU Engineering and Computer Science outfit that works on theoretical and experimental research in computer networking. That work taxed her to the limit at first, and she wondered aloud whether she had what it took. Ravi Pendse, a fellow native of India who runs the institute, kept her going by telling her, “I believe in you.”

Then she gravitated back to the science of the processes of advanced materials, working under a Turkish teacher and expert on nanotechnology, Ramazan Asmatulu. And that man, she said, captured her attention not only with expertise but the passion he showed for his subjects and the success of his students. What she liked most was that he wanted to keep people safe from the dangers of the new world of technology he is helping create.

Nanotechnology, as the government’s National Nanotechnology Initiative says on its website, is the understanding and control of matter at the nanoscale. It is the engineering of tiny, functioning machines to produce energy, make cosmetics, perhaps even to attack cancer cells. The website says that soon, your computer’s entire memory will be stored on one tiny chip.

People can use them to make strong but incredibly light materials, to make surfaces that are, water-repellent, anti-reflective, self-cleaning, ultraviolet- or infrared-resistant, antifog, antimicrobial, scratch-resistant, or electrically conductive.

Nanomaterials are the size of molecules—or much smaller, the size of atoms. Put them in a shirt correctly, Srikanth said, and you have a shirt resistant to water or wine stains. And you can wear it safely; it won’t hurt you, even though some nanomaterials have jagged, crystallized edges.

But manufacturing nanomaterials—all those jagged edges floating in the breathable air—that’s dangerous. The new field has many unknowns.

There’s a flip side to that danger, though, and the teacher and student are exploring that also: If nanomaterials can be manipulated to do creative things, and…if the stuff under certain conditions is dangerous to human cells, then …could nanomaterials be manipulated to target and kill cancer cells? In breast cancer? In skin cancer?

Success ‘within weeks’

Asmatulu has seen many smart Ph.D. candidates, but what she did after that impressed him, he said. He put her to work on what became several projects: working with a group to test the toxicity levels of nano-materials in a drug delivery project for potentially curing breast cancer. “I gave her a project,” Asmatulu said. Success came “within weeks, not months.”

“So I raised the bar,” he said. Success, again.

“She’s smart,” he said.

Success won’t come immediately, he said, and she won’t do it alone. Science like this can take years, involving many scientists. “But what she’s done so far is very promising,” he said.

Srikanth wears what seems to be a perpetual grin when talking with people. The grin got wider when she heard what Bardo had said about how young she looks.

Yes, she said. She does go out sometimes. And yes, she does get carded.

When asked whether she’s working on research that might someday successfully beat some forms of cancer, she stopped grinning.

Does she really believe this might happen?

“Yes,” she said. “Yes, I do.”

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