For the second year in a row, a UNC Greensboro student has been selected for the Goldwater Scholarship, one of the most prestigious STEM-field scholarships in the nation.
It was awarded to Beh Reh, a junior in the Department of Biology, and a STAMPS recipient, studying with Dr. Ramji Bhandari. He was one of 417 students chosen from a pool of more than 5,000 nominated by their institutions.The Goldwater Scholarship Program is one of the oldest and most prestigious national scholarships in the natural sciences, engineering, and mathematics in the United States. Scholars are selected based on their commitment to a STEM research career, display of “intellectual intensity,” and potential for making a significant contribution in their future field of study.
Reh’s story is not a simple one. He was born in a refugee camp on the border between Thailand and Burma, after his parents escaped the ongoing genocide in Myanmar. Some of his early life experiences generated his interest in research, but not because he had access to science in school or through family members.
As a child in an environment with limited resources and health information, he fell ill frequently and visited doctors, who helped him recover. He quickly developed a profound respect for their work and knowledge, and he knew from a very young age that he wanted to study science and medicine so that he could also become a doctor and help people.
“I wanted to understand biology,” he says. “You know – the human body, everything.”
When Reh was nine, his family moved to Massachusetts and then to North Carolina. As a high schooler, he attended UNCG’s Middle College, which allowed him to begin taking college courses when he was only in ninth grade. Reh’s experience with Middle College was fulfilling to him. He found his UNCG professors to be engaging and approachable.
“I had connections with my professors, even then,” he recalls. “You know, they want to mentor us. Everybody was engaging – the other students too. So, I wanted to go to UNCG because I had that experience.”
In Reh’s freshman year, Dr. Ramji Bhandari recruited him to join his lab, where the researchers work on mechanisms underlying gene environment interactions and developmental origins of adult-onset and transgenerational health abnormalities.
Right now, Reh is studying the effects of environmental exposure of potassium perchlorate on the developing primordial germ cells (PGCs) of medaka fish. (PGCs are stem cells that form sperm or eggs in adulthood.)
Medaka fish have rapid development, transparent embryos and easy genetic manipulation, which makes them useful when evaluating potential effects of environmental chemicals on humans. They utilize the same epigenetic mechanisms controlling PGC development as that of humans and other mammals, so the information obtained from research on them can give insights into perchlorate-induced health effects in humans.
Potassium perchlorate is a compound present in military zones, because it is used in military equipment and artillery, and it has been found in drinking water, air, soil, and breast milk. Reh’s research on medaka fish aims to provide information about how potassium perchlorate affects PGCs, male fertility, and offspring health. His work looks at various levels of perchlorate exposure effects on medaka embryos to see if they have delayed hatching time, reduced heartbeats, and increased developmental deformities. The results suggest that there is an increased chance of infertility with exposure to potassium perchlorate.
The work that Reh has undertaken with Bhandari and other biology scholars is currently under review for publication, and Reh has presented his work in a number of conferences, including several internationally.
Another of his projects on perchlorate effects on sperm of male medaka and their offspring is in progress, and the researchers are waiting for results from DNA sequencing and analysis.
Outside of the lab, Reh supports youth and fellow students in the UNCG community and beyond. He works with the Epoch Renewal Church, where he helps Karenni and Burmese refugee youth with school assignments. He is also a former volunteer leader for the Youth Leader Corps through the Department of Kinesiology, where he helped with programs for elementary school students. For the young students, many of them refugees themselves, Reh led athletic activities and in building communication and social skills. He presently serves on the editorial staff of the Lloyd International Honors College magazine, where he enjoys working with fellow UNCG students on their writing.
With the Goldwater Scholarship, Reh will be able to spend even more time in the lab, where he has been mentored and where he has become a mentor himself, of other students.
“My mentor Dr. Bhandari has provided me with many opportunities – and one of them is to help others,” he says.
That goes along with his lifelong goal.
“My purpose is to help people, serve them. I will become a doctor and help them with their pain, be able to do surgery, and help them walk again.”
Story by Susan Kirby-Smith, University Communications
Photography by Martin W. Kane, University Communications