“Knowing in the end that what you’re doing can affect someone’s life, their family’s lives and all layers of the communities around them makes everything worth it.”

Using bacterial communication as a tool for treatment  

A burst of activity in a person’s lungs signals a battle is coming. A legion of Pseudomonas aeruginosa bacteria has taken hold and amassed enough forces to attack. They’ve adapted to the mucous-filled environment and developed the right tactics to communicate with each other; they’re ready to charge.

Karanjia, Bean and the rest of the research team in Bean’s lab are preparing a strategy to sense the oncoming attack. Karanjia studies the bacteria’s phenotypes — observable characteristics resulting from the interaction of an organism’s genetics with its environment. The specific phenotypes she observes are controlled by quorum sensing, or the chemical signals the bacteria use to communicate. P. aeruginosa and its quorum-controlled phenotypes undergo changes as it adapts to its environment in a lung infection.

Investigating how these phenotypes change over the course of a chronic infection, and developing ways to detect the changes, can lead to better treatments.

Karanjia’s primary goal was to measure the amounts of secreted virulence factors, the bacteria’s attack arsenal, in early and late stages of infection, and to identify the underlying genetic changes. She plans to continue this research to better understand how these chronic infection adaptation affect the populations of P. aeruginosa that reside in cystic fibrosis lungs. The work will help researchers better understand how infections progress and, in turn, will better inform treatment options. 

Earning recognition for her multidisciplinary research

In two consecutive weekends of her junior year, Karanjia presented her multidisciplinary research in the poster presentation competitions at the Society of Women Engineers WE 2018 Conference and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers Annual Student Conference.

Karanjia won first-place prizes in both competitions, outperforming 20 research finalists at the Society of Women Engineers conference and more than 300 undergraduate chemical engineering students at the American Institute of Chemical Engineers conference.

“With the caliber of students there and the amazing research presented from so many different excelling universities, I think I did pretty OK!” Karanjia said.

Knowing her focus on life sciences would be a little different from the engineering research her peers were presenting, Karanjia used a storytelling approach to explain the microbiological concepts behind it.

“Telling your research as a clear story is the key to a good research presentation,” Karanjia said. “I learned that from Dr. Bean. You need to provide context because others don’t have a background in what you do.”

By telling the story of why her engineering and life sciences multidisciplinary research matters, Karanjia impressed the judges.

Earning both the Society of Women Engineers and American Institute of Chemical Engineers first-place awards is a special accomplishment.

“The fact that she has won two awards for her research posters at two different conferences in the same year is a tremendous accomplishment that definitely makes Ava unique, and we are proud that she is part of GCSPGrand Challenge Scholars Program,” Trowbridge said.

A leader in research and mentoring

Along with being an accomplished researcher, Karanjia takes many opportunities to help her peers be successful — just as her mentors have done for her.

“I personally had really great mentors who helped me narrow down on my passion and research topics, so I wanted to be that resource for other people,” Karanjia said.

In her three years as a Fulton Schools student, Karanjia has participated in multiple mentoring programs of students at different levels of education.

She particularly enjoys helping girls discover they, too, can be scientists and engineers.

Karanjia has led K–12 outreach efforts with Fulton Ambassadors, a group that shows prospective students around the Fulton Schools and gives classroom presentations.

“When I was little, I didn’t have any role models who looked like me,” Karanjia said. “Role models who look like us are super important in getting minorities in STEM.”

She also helps her peers learn about and take advantage of the opportunities that helped her become the accomplished student she is today. Karanjia often shares her experiences — both successful and unsuccessful — to encourage students to pursue opportunities outside their comfort zones.

“Your undergrad education is meant for you to collect experiences, different perspectives and viewpoints of the world around you,” Karanjia said.

Karanjia welcomes first-year Fulton Schools students each summer at the E2 welcome event as a camp counselor.

At the Tooker House residence hall, Karanjia serves as a peer mentor helping connect students with faculty members who share their interests so they can also take advantage of research opportunities.

“Helping others to realize their passions and successes is something that has made my undergrad experience more valuable,” Karanjia said.

Monique Clement

Lead communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering