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Rice bioengineering students named Goldwater Scholars

By Patrick Kurp
Engineering Communications

Rohan Palanki and Constantine Tzouanas, bioengineering (BIOE) undergraduates at Rice University, have been named Goldwater Scholars for the academic year 2017-2018.

Both sophomores are among the 240 chosen this year from 1,286 mathematics, science and engineering students nominated by universities nationwide. Each will receive $7,500 per year for two years to help cover tuition, fees, books, and room and board.

Palanki is enrolled in the Rice-Baylor Medical Scholars Program and plans to pursue a dual-degree: an M.D. and Ph.D. in BIOE. He works in the lab of Jeffrey Tabor, assistant professor of BIOE at Rice, and his research focuses on developing diagnostic biosensors to detect inflammation of the intestines caused by such conditions as ileitis, Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome.

“We have engineered gut bacteria that sense inflammation of the colon in mice. The idea is for the patient to ingest good bacteria. The doctor, using a stool sample, could determine if the patient suffers from inflammation,” said Palanki, who minors in global health technologies.

While still in high school in Mobile, Ala., Palanki served internships in four labs at the University of South Alabama, and has co-authored five journal and conference articles. “I come from a lineage of scientists and engineers,” he said, “one that emphasizes hard work and prioritizes higher education.”

Tzouanas, a Houston native, is a Century Scholar and works in the lab of Jacob Robinson, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and of BIOE. His research has focused on the magnetogenetic manipulation of single-cell electrophysiology.

“The brain is nature’s ultimate black box: sensory information comes in, and movement and thought come out. In order to understand the seemingly effortless computation that happens, we’d like to start from the level of individual cells and understand how cellular interactions form the emergent properties of the brain. We’re exploring how we can combine genetically modified ion channels and nanotechnology to make specific groups of neurons sensitive to magnetic stimulation,” Tzouanas said. The long-term goal is to understand both basic brain functions and gain further insights into such diseases as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Tzouanas, who has a minor in neuroscience and is working toward earning a Certificate in Engineering Leadership, hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in BIOE, with an emphasis on single-cell physiology, and eventually lead an academic research lab. Last summer, he interned at the National University of Singapore in the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology. This summer he will intern at MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science. He has been a co-author on three journal articles and three poster presentations.

As a sophomore in BIOE at Rice, his sister, Stephanie Tzouanas Schmidt, was named a Goldwater Scholar in 2012. She graduated in 2014 and is a third-year graduate student in BIOE at Stanford University.

This year, two other Rice students received Goldwater honorable mentions: Lucy Lai, a junior in neuroscience, and Ajay Subramanian, a junior in materials science and nanoengineering.

The Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation is a federally endowed agency established in 1986. The scholarship program honoring the late Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona encourages outstanding students to pursue careers in the fields of mathematics, the natural sciences and engineering.