Audrey Francis is a recent high school graduate who attended high school at the Loudoun Academy of Science, a math and science magnet school in Virginia that emphasizes inquiry-based learning and innovation. During high school, she developed a passion for science and in particular, biology, and had the opportunity to conduct a two-year long independent research project starting in eleventh grade. Throughout her junior and senior years, she earned numerous accolades at her regional and state science fairs, including Best of Fair at the 2014 Loudoun Regional Science and Engineering Fair and one of four top prizes at the Virginia Junior Sciences and Humanities Symposium. During her senior year, she had the opportunity to travel to Los Angeles to compete in the 2014 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, where she placed 3rd in the Medicine and Health Category.
While developing her project, Audrey was inspired by her background as an avid equestrian and came across a problem that many equine and small animal vets across the country are currently trying to address: parasite multidrug resistance. One of the primary mechanisms through which organisms acquire multidrug resistance such relies on a protein called P-glycoprotein, which is imbedded in the cell membrane and functions to remove drugs and toxins from the intracellular environment before they have a chance to act on the cell. When overexpressed, these proteins can allow organisms, such as intestinal parasites in horses, to evade the effects of a wide variety of drugs by continually pumping them out of the cell. Using the free-living, microscopic nematode C. elegans as a model organism for resistant parasitic roundworms, Audrey began testing the effects of a natural inhibitor of P-glycoprotein called Biochanin A on the efficacy of a common deworming drug, Ivermectin. She used a C. elegans strain that was genetically modified to be resistant to Ivermectin, and the results demonstrated that Biochanin A was able to significantly reduce Ivermectin resistance.
During her senior year of high school, she made a leap into the field of cancer research, hoping to show that inhibiting P-glycoprotein using Biochanin A could also reduce drug resistance in cancer and improve the effectiveness of chemotherapy drugs. However, rather than testing this in cancer cells, which would be difficult to maintain in a classroom environment, she created a preliminary model for basic cancer research using wildtype C. elegans as tumor models. The results largely paralleled the results of her junior year, showing that Biochanin A was able to successfully increase the efficacy of a prostate cancer drug by reducing drug efflux. Because Biochanin A is one of the most potent inhibitors of P-glycoprotein and is a natural compound found in foods such as soybeans and peanuts, Audrey believes it presents a particularly compelling possibility for reducing multidrug resistance in cancer patients.
Moving forward, Audrey hopes to continue pursuing research and branching out into new fields of scientific innovation at the University of Virginia, where she will be attending college and following a pre-med track beginning this fall. While she loves the work she does in the lab, the most rewarding part of research for her is being able to share her discoveries with others, whether it is through science fairs, conferences, or writing, so that she can contribute to the growing base of knowledge in medical research aimed at improving people’s lives. In addition to science, she continues to be an active equestrian and competes in the sport of eventing, and also loves writing and visual arts. While she has a variety of passions and interests, a career in STEM has always been at the forefront of her career goals, and she is excited to see what the future holds.
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