Pia Sen, Finalist 2014

Discovered Treatment for Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria — Now Sets Sights on NASA

Pia Sen
"When I presented at my first research conference my sophomore year of college, I was the youngest presenter. But I didn’t feel insecure because it was similar to science fair.”

This is the first of three articles following the extraordinary careers of former winners of the Austin Regional Science Festival.

Pia Sen attended her first Austin Energy Regional Science Festival in the 11th grade — and won Best of Fair.

Pia’s experiment for the 2014 Festival combined her love for biology and electrical engineering. The high school junior discovered a way to treat antibiotic-resistant bacteria using tumor treatment fields, a type of electromagnetic field therapy typically used to treat cancer.

The success propelled her through the international science fair competition to a summer of research in Italy. Now, she studies at The University of Texas at Austin and is a member of a NASA research team. Pia has her sights on the stars and the origin of life.

Then a student at Austin Independent School District’s Liberal Arts and Science Academy (LASA) in 2014, Pia said she didn’t know what to expect when she signed up for the Austin Energy Regional Science Festival. Pia said she was amazed by the whole process, from the quality of research to the judging.

“When they announced the first place winners who would then compete for Intel that was really exciting,” said Pia. “We got to talk a little more with our judges during that part of the competition because there were fewer competitors. It was great to hear feedback from scientists who were, like, real scientists who had gone to college and worked at Intel or different companies. Some of them were even professors, which I thought was super cool.”

She advanced to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. As a finalist there, she was awarded a chance to study bioinformatics in Trentino, Italy. Austin Energy, the City of Austin’s publicly owned electric utility, hosts and sponsors Science Fest every year in February for nearly 3,000 students from 3rd - 12th grade.

“As a result of the Austin [Energy Regional] Science Festival and then Intel, I got to go to Italy to spend a month there doing research,” said Pia. “It was my first time leaving the country, and we were basically living in this beautiful Italian village in the mountains. It was a huge experience for me. I got to see so many new things and meet so many new people from different cultures.”

Pia, after graduating from LASA in 2015, studied microbiology at the University of Texas at Dallas. After her freshman year, she interned at NASA working in astrobiology, an interdisciplinary field that focuses on the origins, evolution and future of life in the universe. Now a senior at UT-Austin, Pia is working on a research team for NASA. She’s writing a grant for a potential research project to explore Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons.

Pia said she learned valuable skills from her high school Science Fest experience that she has applied to her research career.

“Obviously I learned content-wise a lot about science,” said Pia. “But I also learned soft skills, like presentation skills, which has made my college experience a lot easier. The format of Science Fest is similar to research conferences. When I presented at my first research conference my sophomore year of college, I was the youngest presenter. But I didn’t feel insecure because it was similar to science fair.”

“I love astrobiology, so ideally I want to work at NASA,” said Pia. “I’m interested in microbial ecology — how to find ways for life to exist on other planets and understanding the origins of life.”

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Last Updated: 2/1/19

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