Genetic disease project wins student first prize in A*Star talent search

SINGAPORE - After seeing her grandfather beat cancer last year, 18-year-old Vijayakumar Ragavi decided to look into her family’s history of genetic disease.

The NUS High School student carried out a scientific research project on one such disease – hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) – which on Thursday (April 26) saw her win first prize in this year’s A*Star Talent Search.

HCM, which clinically manifests as an enlarged heart, is a highly prevalent cardiac disorder that can be fatal.

“I understood how scary it is to have a genetic disease – you never know when it is going to manifest,” said Miss Ragavi, who believes her project has further potential.

“I plan to go back to the laboratory as soon as I can, and take this research to the next level.”

Miss Ragavi’s project centred around stem cell technology which allows for the detection of the genetic disease through blood samples, rather than the typical method of performing cardiac biopsies. Such biopsies are extremely difficult procedures which entail taking a small piece of the heart so that it can be checked for genetic disease in the laboratory.

She was the first of eight finalists in the competition, picked from 123 gold, silver and bronze medallists, who received their awards at the Singapore Science and Engineering Festival.

The competition is part of a joint collaboration between A*Star and Science Centre Singapore.

A*Star is the Agency for Science, Technology and Research and its talent search aims to recognise scientific research projects by students from secondary school and junior college.

Professor Ng Huck Hui, executive director of the A*Star Graduate Academy and Genome Institute of Singapore, who was also in the judging panel, said: “The bar is being raised higher every year.

“It is remarkable that students at such young ages are forging ahead, towards new frontiers, by themselves.”

Miss Ragavi’s father, Mr Rajamanickkam Vijayakumar, 44, said: “She has been passionate about science since she was young. There were times we wished she would spend more time with us rather than on her science project.

“But even then, we know that her project stems from a place of love for us.”