Discovering Medicine

Recent College graduate Avanthi Raghavan investigates the gene that may play a role in cardiovascular disease.
July 1, 2012

Even as a high school student, Avanthi Raghavan, C’12, G’12, knew her way around a laboratory. Through her school’s science mentoring program, she worked for three years in a biomedical lab at the University of Central Florida, where she helped examine the transport of proteins key to the survival and virulence of Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite that causes malaria. Her work earned her recognition as the second author of a study published in Eukaryotic Cell, a journal of the American Society for Microbiology.

“Being at the edge of medicine was very appealing to me,” she says. “Working in that lab was a big part of my decision to join Vagelos when I got to Penn. I wanted to continue on that research-oriented track.”

And continue she did. All participants in the Roy and Diana Vagelos Scholars Program in the Molecular Life Sciences are required to perform at least two summers of research in addition to taking a full roster of science courses. Raghavan, who earned a Bachelor of Arts in biochemistry in May and will receive a Master of Science in chemistry in August, spent three years working from 20 to upwards of 40 hours each week in the lab of Daniel Rader, the Edward S. Cooper, M.D./Norman Roosevelt and Elizabeth Meriwether McLure Professor in the Perelman School of Medicine.

"If we can understand the molecular mechanisms by which genes influence HDL cholesterol levels in humans, it may offer some form of therapeutic value." - Avanthi Raghavan

“I like the feeling of being able to discover new knowledge,” she says. “It’s one thing to learn something in a textbook. It’s another thing to discover something. It’s really new, it’s unexplored, and I like being a part of that.”

Raghavan and her colleagues in Rader’s lab have been working to unravel the genetic mysteries of lipid metabolism by examining the gene GALNT2, which may play a role in cardiovascular disease. They have been manipulating the expression of GALNT2 in mice to see what effect the gene has on the production of HDL cholesterol, the potentially less harmful cholesterol which is believed to prevent the accumulation of cholesterol in the arteries and protects against heart disease.

“There’s a lot of interest in understanding how we can moderate HDL cholesterol levels in people in such a way that we can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease,” Raghavan explains. “If we can understand the molecular mechanisms by which genes influence HDL cholesterol levels in humans, it may offer some form of therapeutic value.”

The daughter of two clinicians – a pediatrician and a cardiologist – Raghavan has wanted to be a physician since she was in elementary school. “I couldn’t imagine myself being anything else,” she says. In August, she’ll move a step closer to her goal when she begins life as a medical student in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, a program geared toward those wanting to combine clinical work with scientific research.

Raghavan isn’t sure what area of medicine she’d like to practice, but she’s certain that she would like to incorporate scientific investigation into whatever avenue she eventually chooses. “I’ve realized I not only want to practice medicine, I want to be engaged in the process of discovering medicine,” she says.