Cumberland Valley High School senior Sarah Chacko has a passion for understanding the human brain, and for good reason.
Chacko’s grandfather has Parkinson’s Disease – a neurodegenerative disorder that can cause serious motor control problems like tremors, as well as symptoms of depression and cognitive impairment, according to the Parkinson’s Foundation.
“Parkinson’s has a hereditary component, so this is something that I’m definitely interested in,” she said.
But Chacko’s interest in the issue goes beyond her family’s connection and beyond the classroom. She recently had the opportunity to get hands-on experience doing research inside a laboratory.
Chacko was a top 10 finalist in the Penn State Hershey Medical Center Brain Bee, which earned her a prestigious research internship at the medical center learning about neurological diseases like Parkinson’s.
During her internship, she completed a project looking at what effect exposure to the herbicide, paraquat, has on dopamine-producing neurons in the brain called the substantia nigra. This is the part of the brain and type of neurons affected by Parkinson’s Disease, according to the Parkinson’s Foundation.
“I’m really interested in the intersection of medicine and technology,” she said.
Chacko, the daughter of Jacob and Mary Chacko, has also been actively involved in robotics and plans to study computer science in college, which she said she plans to use in a medical or health care career.
She carries a 104.68 GPA while taking a full schedule of advance placement and college preparatory classes.
Outside the classroom, Chacko recently earned her Girl Scout Gold Award for founding the Health Occupations Student Association at her high school. The organization has more than 40 members who are looking to go into health or medical fields after high school.
Chacko said founding the club is her greatest accomplishment to date.
“It was quite a challenge to get it started,” she said. “There’s definitely an interest among the students who want to go into the health care field who don’t have many opportunities within the school to get a chance to volunteer or speak to (those in) subspecialties in the health care field.”
Women in computer science and STEM fields remain underrepresented, an issue Chacko has tackled head on by doing outreach to young girls.
Her outreach includes helping organize and run a robotics camp to reach Girl Scouts in the Harrisburg area, talking to parents of kindergarten-age Girl Scouts about robotics and being part of the STEM advisory committee for the Harrisburg Girls World Expo.
“For the last four years, I’ve been in computer science classes,” she said. “Even in my certifications classes right now, there are only like three girls out of 20 something people. There’s definitely a gender gap in STEM. Reaching these girls at a young age and telling them it’s OK to be a girl in computer science is one way to bridge that gender gap.”
Chacko credited a great deal of her success to the support and encouragement she has received from her parents.
“I definitely credit a lot of what I do to my parents,” she said. “They are willing to support me in whatever I want to do. They are willing to help me do what I love.”
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