Changing lives with chemistry and history
Hiren Parekh is synthesizing the molecule Pannokin D, a molecule with potent anti-cancer properties that could be used as an alternative treatment to stomach cancer.
Parekh is the first person to synthesize the molecule; also, Parekh is a senior at Saxony Lutheran High School.
Parekh first became interested in pharmaceutical development during his sophomore year of high school. It was then that he began his first independent research project in which he contrasted the antimicrobial efficiency between synthetic antibiotics and natural products, such as oregano and turmeric.
The next year, Parekh shifted his focus to organic chemistry after realizing its importance to pharmaceutical development. He studied the subject independently and audited two organic chemistry courses at Southeast Missouri State University. Then, he joined his professor Dr. Sijan Silwal’s lab, where he began his next project, synthesizing — or “making from scratch” — the molecule Pannokin D.
He says the molecule was first extracted in 2016 from a breadfruit-producing tree in Southeast Asia. Parekh was reading a publication on the topic when he got the idea to synthesize the product himself.
To synthesize Pannokin D, Parekh must complete six to seven reactions. He says each reaction can take one week, but there is “no predicting how long it could take,” as each synthetic pathway is basically a hypothesis. The process requires constant adjustments.
Parekh entered his science project in the 2021 regional science fair, and he was selected to compete at the virtual Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), where he placed as a finalist and won multiple awards.
“[Going to ISEF] was actually something I’ve been dreaming of for a while, and when I got selected to compete at the international science fair my junior year, it was a big honor for me and a really big achievement for me,” Parekh says. “I not only got to present my research on a global scale, but I also got to learn a lot from other students who are there.”
Parekh’s interests don’t stop at science. After taking an American history course during his freshman year of high school, he searched for opportunities to learn outside of the classroom. He discovered Missouri’s National Veterans Memorial in Perryville, Mo., was developing a museum that would open in August 2020. Parekh immediately reached out to see how he could help.
Barely a junior in high school, Parekh joined the Missouri’s National Veterans Memorial as a volunteer independent researcher. He researched artifacts such as telegrams sent from soldiers in war, military payment certificates, a military Jeep, weapons and badges. One of the most rewarding parts of the experience for Parekh was interviewing more than 20 veterans about their experiences in the service.
“Learning history isn’t just about researching artifacts and finding fascinating historical events, but it’s also about preserving the experiences of veterans and ensuring that their voices are heard and telling their stories,” Parekh says.
The exhibits Parekh helped research, interview and write are now on display at the museum. Parekh says seeing his exhibits is rewarding, and he is glad he could create a “really educational experience for others.”
Somehow, Parekh still finds time to get involved at his school, Saxony Lutheran High School. Parekh is not just involved; he holds a leadership position in almost every club he’s part of. He is the student body secretary in Student Council, secretary in Beta Club, lead tour guide for Saxony Ambassadors — and the list goes on.
“A lot of my projects outside of school are kind of independent, and so in my school, I really enjoy working with others,” Parekh says.
After graduating in May 2022, Parekh plans to pursue an education in chemistry or one of the biological sciences before moving on to medical school.
“After medical school, I hope to pursue an interdisciplinary vocation in which I can pursue medicine but also pursue a career as a policymaker to maybe improve medicine for veterans and really any other underserved population that struggles with accessing medicine,” Parekh says.
Parekh is currently working on developing a faster, more feasible synthetic pathway for arriving at Pannokin D. He plans on entering his continuation of the project into this year’s science fair.
“[My grandma] told me to never give up and always rise to any occasion that comes in my life,” Parekh says. “So that's something that I’ve been following is that whenever I have an opportunity to learn something or change something or maybe partake in something, I always pursue it.”