Columbia Intern Wins $50,000 Prize for Research on Novel Biomarkers to Predict Suicide Risk  

Natasha Kulviwat, a 17-year-old research intern, has received a top international award for her investigation of suicide biomarkers—physical and measurable substances in the brain—that have the potential to identify people who are likely to die by suicide and allow for earlier, life-saving intervention.

A rising high school senior from Jericho, New York, Natasha won a $50,000 college scholarship at the May 2023 Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair, sponsored by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals and the Society for Science. The global competition, which featured more than 1,600 young scientists vying for a handful of awards, aims to encourage young people to pursue careers in STEM and scientific research.

“Natasha is a bright, inspiring, and determined young scientist who was truly part of the team and whose research has made a valuable contribution to understanding the neurobiology of suicide," said Mark Underwood, PhD, professor of clinical neuroscience (in psychiatry) who supervised Natasha’s research at the Conte Center for Suicide Prevention at Columbia and the New York State Psychiatric Institute (NYSPI). “We have brought interns into the lab in the past, but never before has a high school student produced such high-quality, original research.”

The Conte Center, led by renowned suicidologist John Mann, MD, a professor of psychiatry and radiology at Columbia and director of the Molecular Imaging and Neuropathology Division at NYSPI, seeks to determine how childhood adversity, neuroinflammation, and genes interact to affect suicide risk throughout adulthood.  

Analyzing brain tissue

Natasha’s commitment to suicide prevention is rooted in both her passion for neuroscience and grave concern about the mental health challenges of her generation. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among people ages 15 to 24 in the U.S. Nearly 20% of high school students report serious thoughts of suicide and 9% have made an attempt to take their lives. 

Over the course of the internship, she dedicated six months to analyzing the donated brain tissue of individuals who died by suicide, comparing them to a control group of individuals who passed away from other causes.

Natasha discovered that the brains of people who took their lives had elevated levels of a protein called claudin-5, part of the blood-brain barrier that protects the brain from potentially harmful molecules in the blood. The finding of claudin-5 in the neurons of those who died by suicide is indicative of a breakdown in the blood-brain barrier that may have allowed for an "influx of agents into the functional areas of the brain that affect decision-making and behavioral control,” Natasha said.

Her work suggests that high levels of claudin-5 in extravascular tissue—outside of the blood vessels where it is normally located—may serve as predictors for suicide and that drugs modulating the protein might offer a new strategy for intervention and prevention.

Investigating biological matter

By the time Natasha arrived at Columbia last year, she already had a distinguished resume. At the start of the pandemic, as a high school freshman, she applied to Harvard Medical School’s Mood and Behavior Lab and was accepted for an internship. There, she worked remotely with occasional on-site visits to evaluate neurocognitive characteristics of imminent risk for suicidal behavior in adolescents and was first author on a conference paper about the research.

Natasha knew the next step for her as a researcher-in-training was to conduct “wet lab” studies, which would allow her to combine her experience in bioinformatics with the investigation of biological matter. The opportunity came during her junior year when her high school science teacher encouraged students to find lab internships over the summer.

“Our teacher told us to write to as many researchers as possible because internships are difficult to get, but I really wanted to work with Dr. Mann at Columbia,” Natasha said. She'd had that dream ever since reading Dr. Mann's papers in middle school.

“Initially, I was nervous to reach out to Dr. Mann since he is an influential figure in the field,” Natasha said. But she emailed him, they talked, and he brought her in for an interview. “During our meeting, I remember talking to him about my passions and bonding over a few papers I'd read," she said.

“John is a good judge of character, and he saw something in Natasha,” said Dr. Underwood, who stepped into the role of volunteer supervisor years ago.  He's mentored about a dozen interns in the lab since joining Columbia in the 1990s to investigate the anatomical and neurochemical underpinnings of suicide behavior and alcohol use disorder.

Daughter of Thai immigrants

This summer, Natasha is continuing with her brain studies and beginning to evaluate the genetics of suicide risk. Similar to last year, her father, a business professor at Hofstra University, drives her Monday through Friday to the lab from Long Island, often doing his own work from a conference room at the NYSPI building until closing time at 4 p.m.  “Sometimes my Mom and sister join him and the family goes somewhere fun like a waterpark, but I don’t mind,” she said.

Natasha is in the process of applying to college and planning to major in neuroscience. She aims to continue her research in her undergraduate studies and eventually pursue her goal of becoming a pediatrician.

"Ensuring the well-being of our youth—both physical and mental—is the best way toward a healthy future," she said.

Media Contact

Carla Cantor
Director of Communications, Columbia Psychiatry
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