Student researcher wins award for quest to improve liver recovery after injury

Undergraduate student Richa Vijayvargiya works in the laboratory.Richa Vijayvargiya is an award-winning researcher — and she hasn’t even earned her bachelor’s degree yet. Vijayvargiya is in her junior year as an undergraduate student at UF majoring in microbiology and cell science. She plans to minor in Spanish.

Vijayvargiya works in the department of surgery’s Cell Death and Cell Signaling Laboratory under the supervision of Jae-Sung Kim, Ph.D., an assistant professor of surgery. His research mainly focuses on preventing and reversing ischemia/reperfusion injury — damage done to a liver when it is separated from the flow of blood and oxygen, often during surgery.

Currently, Vijayvargiya is collaborating with a postdoctoral researcher to investigate ways to boost autophagy, a cellular process that allows cells to dispose of old parts and remain functional.

“I’m looking at a drug called desipramine right now, that I’ve shown to induce autophagy in liver cell samples,” she said.

If desipramine ultimately proves successful in jumpstarting autophagy in human liver cells, it may help patients who undergo liver surgery, including liver transplants, overcome a major medical hurdle.

“Her study may be a stepping stone for developing therapeutic strategies to improve liver function after liver transplantation and resection surgery,” said Kim. “Currently, no single agent has been known to enhance autophagy without causing substantial side effects.”

Such a technique might also lead to major improvements in the realm of liver transplantation.

“It (may) be a useful mechanism to restore damaged livers and increase the number of donor livers,” Vijayvargiya said. “There are a lot of people with liver disease in the United States, but there’s a huge shortage of donor livers. Any way we can increase the number of donor livers is great.”

As of mid-April, 16,081 people in the U.S. were awaiting a liver transplant, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.

Vijayvargiya said she’s “always had an interest in science,” and recalls visiting a UF biomedical research laboratory on a field trip with her advanced placement biology class in high school.

“We were in one of the labs and we got to do a little experiment,” she said. “I just thought the lab environment was really cool and I liked investigating problems. It’s kind of different than being in class where it’s all passive and you’re just taking in information. Here, you have to analyze different sources of information, and kind of build on it.”

UF’s reputation as a solid research institution drew her here for her undergraduate years, she said. She also wants to attend medical school, and plans to pursue a career as a surgeon.

“I would love to go to UF (for medical school),” she said. “I think it has a great program. The students do really well. They get matched in great places. They do well on their board exams. There are many specialties here, so you get a lot of opportunities to train in different areas.”

Vijayvargiya said she plans to incorporate laboratory research into her future career, and ultimately wants to become a surgeon. She is grateful for the opportunity to work in a surgical research lab, side-by-side with people who are living her dream.

“It’s cool to be around the (surgical) residents in the lab and see what they do,” she said. “It’s further inspired me.”

Through an undergraduate class called Physician Shadowing, Vijayvargiya has the opportunity to see what the clinical side of her desired career could be like. She shadows Kfir Ben-David, M.D., an assistant professor of surgery and director of bariatric surgery at UF, while he performs operations and clinical visits.

Vijayvargiya recently learned she is a 2012-2013 College of Medicine University Scholar. She said she applied for the scholarship in February and was honored to be chosen. She included a description of her research with Kim as part of the application.

“I really like my project,” she said. “I think it’s really interesting, so I’m glad other people think that it is, too.”

The honor will provide a stipend for Vijayvargiya to continue her work with Kim through the spring semester of 2013. She currently participates in the research on a volunteer basis.

Kim said Vijayvargiya’s dedication to the project has been impressive.

“Despite her tight class schedule and endless exams, Richa has diligently spent many days and nights, weekdays and weekends in the lab for these challenging experiments,” he said.

She earned the University Scholar award because of “her perseverance and hard work,” he said.