Del Mar student is youngest presenter at a major mitochondrial meeting

Del Mar resident Varun Sharma, a rising senior at the Bishop’s School had the extraordinary opportunity to be the first high school student to present his science project at a major meeting featuring mitochondrial research in June of 2011. Mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cell and responsible for energy production for our organs to function, to perform athletic activities and even for our brains to work effectively.

Varun, who is also one of the top squash players of Southern California, has been interested in how the mitochondria may play a role in the benefits of exercise, especially on brain function. Last summer, Varun worked closely with his mentors Robert Naviaux, MD/Ph.D., and Victoria Risbrough, Ph.D. to test whether exercise may benefit emotional and higher brain function via changes in mitochondrial activity. This novel project combined the expertise of two separate labs at UCSD that had not previously worked together.

Varun’s project found that exercise in mice did indeed lead to less anxiety and better cognitive skills. Surprisingly, the exercised mice had evidence of improved mitochondrial function in the liver but not in the muscle or the brain. The investigators thus found a novel way how exercise may initially change liver function and that the combined integration of multiple organs may be necessary for improved brain function. The data was submitted to the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation in Illinois. Among over 100 abstract submissions from leading investigators throughout the world, Varun’s abstract was selected as one of the top 40 and as the first author he presented the project in the poster competition.

Leading investigators, such as Dr. Doug Wallace (chair of Pediatric Mitochondrial Medicine and Metabolic Disease at the University of Pennsylvania) found the work to be of great interest and were astounded by his skills and knowledge on a very difficult topic. Varun was very excited and honored to be able to present his work and discuss the findings with the top experts in the field of mitochondrial biology. In the words of his mentor, Robert Naviaux, professor of Biochemical Genetics and Metabolism at UCSD, “When Varun was invited by the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation to present his summer research on the brain and metabolic effects of exercise at their annual meeting in Chicago, we were all thrilled. Varun is the youngest person ever to present his research at this prestigious meeting. I spoke to many of the senior scientists who dropped by to hear Varun describe his research at his poster. These included several of the top scientists in the world in the field of mitochondrial medicine. They uniformly praised Varun’s poise, professionalism, knowledge, and his interesting results. I am very proud of all that Varun has been able to accomplish. He has been a great ambassador both for UCSD and for The Bishop’s School.”

Varun hopes to pursue his love of science, exercise biology, and squash during college and explore the integration of neurobiology with exercise physiology.