For This Genius, ‘Normal’ Childhood Included Fruit Flies, Research Papers

For This Genius, ‘Normal’ Childhood Included Fruit Flies, Research Papers

One moment, Marissa Sumathipala says she had a perfectly normal childhood. A few minutes later, she will drop this nugget into the conversation.

“When I was in seventh grade, I turned my bedroom into a fruit fly lab,” she said. “I read the Harry Potter books in third grade. (When other kids her age were reading Harry Potter) I would stay up late reading research papers.”

Here curiosity and passion for learning about nature have already paid off for Sumathipala. The valedictorian at Broad Run High School last spring entered Harvard this fall. Because of the AP classes she took in high school, she will enter college at a sophomore level and expects to have at least one master’s degree in her four years there.

As impressive as those accomplishments may sound, Sumathipala might have trouble finding room to squeeze them on her already burgeoning resume.

  • She is the only person to make the top 15 four times in the BioGENEius Challenge, a premier biotechnology competition.
  • In 2017, she was the first student from Loudoun County Public Schools selected as a Research Science Institute Scholar, the most
  • prestigious international summer research program for high school students.
  • She became only the second LCPS student to be named a top 40 finalist in the 2018 Regeneron Science Talent Search, the nation’s most prestigious and oldest science research competition that is referred to as the “Junior Nobel Prize.”
  • She is a three-time winner in the ISEF international science fair competition. In 2018, she was the Grand Award winner in computational biology and had a planetoid named for her. In 2016, she was the Grand Award Winner in cellular and molecular biology – getting another planetoid named in her honor. Also in 2016, she was the Grand Award Winner for the Intel Foundation and won an 11-day trip to China, where she presented her research to Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao.
  • She won an impressive list of college scholarships, being named a United States Presidential Scholar, Coca-Cola Scholar, Davidson Fellow and the Virginia Governor’s STEM Award winner.

More impressive than what she has accomplished in the classroom is that she is already making ground-breaking discoveries in real-world laboratories, including Johns Hopkins University, Harvard Medical School and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in the Janelia Research Campus right here in Loudoun County.

Sumathipala is already turning heads in the biotech research community, not just in helping find cures in the areas of heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, but for developing new, more efficient ways to look for cures.

“The way research is being done, you have the computational side, but then those findings have be tested using the traditional wet-lab approach where they work with cells and chemicals,” Sumathipala said. “I am developing a novel approach by working at the intersection of artificial intelligence and network science. I developed a computational platform that maps the thousands of biological interactions underlying heart disease to pinpoint drug targets that are holistic and more effective therapeutics – like a Google Maps for biological networks.

“What allows me to do this is that I have extensive training in the computational side at Harvard Medical School school and in the wet-lab side at Johns Hopkins.”

Sumathipala is forming a start-up company called Theraplexus and is in the process of obtaining a nonprovisional patent for her computational platform. She said she chose Harvard over schools like Stanford and MIT because Harvard has the laboratory facilities that are the best fit for her research and because she is confident she can get access to those labs right away.

“So few bio-tech labs are truly interdisciplinary,” she said. “You can work on computational learning but not truly understand the underlying biology. I want to identify drug targets that not only treat symptoms, but treat the underlying causes.”

Sumathipala said her interdisciplinary approach and looking at entire networks of genes and their links to diseases can help pinpoint the best drug target for treatment.

“It currently takes about 12 years and $2.6 billion to bring a new drug to market,” she said. “My proteomic network platform … will ultimately lead to rapid, low-cost discovery of drugs that will dramatically improve the lives of millions suffering from debilitating diseases such as heart disease, cancers, and Alzheimer’s.”

Sumathipala said she had interests outside of biology and fruit flies when she was growing up. She was even a competitive figure skater for a period of time.

“I went to school dances and football games,” she said. “I think, socially, I had a very normal childhood.”

Sumathipala’s parents both have advanced degrees. Her father, Kuma Sumathipala, is a chemical engineer and her mother, Nina Arendstz, is a mechanical engineer. She said they were always supportive of her passion for learning, and they even overlooked the fruit fly lab in her bedroom.

“I think they really fostered the curiosity in me, and I always found my curiosity peaked by the natural world and the mechanics of life,” she said. “They were always supportive, even driving me up to Johns Hopkins every weekend.”

Sumathipala said her long-term goals include being the head of a large, state-of-art research facility that continues to break new ground in health science and technology. She has already started on another main goal in life, helping other budding scientists satisfy their curiosity.

“I want to be able to inspire that same love for science in other kids and help create the next generation of scientists,” she said. “I have held STEM events at the Ashburn Public Library, with hands-on activities to teach kids about science and biology.”

Joseph Dill