Texas teen researches cancer at UNTHSC
If 14-year-old Ruhani Ahluwalia had her way, her days would be filled with time to let her curiosity run free.
How can a doctor attack cancer with medicines that don’t ravage the patient?
How can an artist touch a person with a hidden message in an oil painting?
If one is a character in the Harry Potter universe, which Hogwarts house best suits one’s personality?
This is Ahluwalia’s world — where the pursuit of learning leads to more learning for a self-described Renaissance teenager. She likes science, art and music so much that talking about these disciplines makes her grin.
“I want to be like a Renaissance person,” she said. “They are multitalented. I just have too many interests.”
Ahluwalia is a 10-grade student at Harmony School of Innovation, a public charter school in southwest Fort Worth. Since age 11, the Arlington teenager has been working summers in a lab at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth researching cancer cells. She is testing drugs that can kill cancer cells while limiting the side effects to healthy cells.
It’s a special mission guided by the heart because she lost a great aunt to leukemia when she was in the sixth grade.
“The tragic death of my great aunt, who suffered from lymphoma and leukemia for 13 years, inspired me to research possible cancer treatments,” Ahluwalia explained in one written description of her research.
Ahluwalia’s list of accomplishments is five pages long and includes placing third in Brazil’s science fair, MOSTRATEC, for her breast cancer research.
Erin Wolfe, director of development and communication for Harmony Public Schools, worked with Ahluwalia as part of the school sytems’s gifted and talented program. She said the teen is a passionate thinker.
“She thinks for herself,” Wolfe said. “... She is very thoughtful in everything that she does. When she finds something that resonates, you can see it in her face.”
Ahluwalia’s great aunt, Romi Katial, died from her cancer.
“What ended up really damaging her was the chemotherapy and the effects of it because chemotherapy is not just directed to killing the cancer cells of the body. It kills both cancer and normal cells.”
Because of this, Ahluwalia said most of her great aunt’s body had shut down as she battled cancer.
“Her organs couldn’t function anymore,” she said, adding that this experience moved her to start her cancer research.
“I wanted to find — and help in the finding — of a better way to target cancer cells,” she said.
During the summer between sixth and seventh grade, Ahluwalia said, she began research with little knowledge in the study of cancer and with help from her mother, Parmeet Jodhka.
“Most of the knowledge I gained, in order to do the science fair, has been adding up every year,” she said. “What I know today, I did not know back then.”
Ahluwalia said she had to learn everything outside of school. Guided by her mother, a microbiology professor at Tarrant County College, she was able to start working in a research lab.
Jodhka said that because her daughter and her 10-year-old son are the focus of her life, she does whatever she can to expose them to hobbies or areas of study that let them delve deep into their interests. She wants them to understand the importance of working hard and how different disciplines have a role in helping others.
“They are my passion,” Jodhka said. “I do whatever it takes to help them learn.”
That meant helping Ahluwalia find lab time at UNTHSC, where Jodhka completed postdoctoral research.
Jodhka taught her daughter the necessary biology.
“Before you can know how any of this is working, you have to know how the cells work and how the cancer cells work and how this drug works and how the body works — there are so many things you need to learn,” Ahluwalia said.
Jodhka also found mentors, who guided Ahluwalia in a research lab. Among those experts was Andras Lacko, professor of physiology and anatomy and member of the Institute for Cancer Research.
Ahluwalia spent her recent summer vacations in the university lab working from about 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. She has presented her findings at multiple science fairs.
“She is rather unique,” Lacko said. “I’m impressed by her multiple talents.”
Asked what her great aunt would think of this work, Ahluwalia responded: “I don’t think she would be surprised but she would be very, very happy.”
A renaissance teen
Ahluwalia and her great aunt were close even though they lived in different parts of Texas. Ahluwalia lived in North Texas and her great aunt lived in Houston. Everyone in her Indian American family is close, explained Ahluwalia, who lives in Arlington but attends school in Fort Worth.
“She was always wanting me to paint something for her,” Ahluwalia said, recalling how her aunt helped inspire her artwork.
“I like — with my paintings— to have this hidden meaning,” she said, pointing to a portrait of her great aunt. She painted the portrait so that her great aunt is immortalized as the pensive, young beauty she was years before being attacked by cancer.
“This is before anything happened. It’s to show what she really was like and how we want to remember her as — not the person who was on a ventilator,” she said, explaining that she used her great aunt’s affinity for jewelry to depict a passion for life.
The painting, predominantly in gray hues, has touches of gold on the jewelry her great aunt is wearing to represent her great aunt’s love of family and life. The clothes have a soft, silky texture to depict an angelic quality, Ahluwalia said.
“She was a fighter,” Ahluwalia said. “She was a big fighter. She loved her family so much. She didn’t want to leave. The gold is trying to symbolize what her priorities were — what she really loved in life.”
When she isn’t painting, Ahluwalia writes poetry, plays the piano and, of late, is learning how to sing. She likes Broadway musicals, including Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” and Disney’s “Beauty and The Beast.” She likes to watch movies with friends, including Harry Potter movies.
She said her favorite character is Hermione Granger. She also likes to quiz herself on the Pottermore website to see what Hogwarts house best fits her personality. The answer, it seems, is all of them.
Ahluwalia hasn’t decided what she plans to study in the future, but she knows whatever it is, it will build on her passions.
Ahluwalia said her current challenge is juggling school work. She said she has to make up a week’s worth of class work, including two advanced placement courses, because she traveled to Brazil for the science fair. She also has to work on projects and study for tests.
“I like learning,” she said. “I don’t like studying. ... There is a difference between the two. Studying you are too caught up in finishing it, in turning it in, in making the teacher happy. Learning you are doing more for yourself.”