FINALIST YEAR: 1984
HIS FINALIST PROJECT: Identifying malaria treatment targets
WHAT LED TO THE PROJECT: Atom Sarkar was destined for scientific pursuits. His moniker is no coincidence; his biophysicist father wanted to name the boy after something related to his work. After his little sister contracted malaria at age six during a visit to India, a teenaged Sarkar, who had access to a lab at The Rockefeller University in New York City, decided to research the disease.
He tried to identify common proteins in malarial parasites, thinking that common proteins could be targeted by treatments. "It was a very enormously wide-eyed goal," he says. As he points out, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's billions of dollars still have not solved this leading cause of death. "A 17-year-old in a lab for a summer wasn't going to do it." But the research did win him a spot as a 1984 Westinghouse Science Talent Search finalist.
THE EFFECT ON HIS CAREER: The experience became "a gateway drug to science" and, specifically, a career in trying to understand baffling medical questions. He went to Brown University in Providence, R.I., for college, to the University of Miami School of Medicine in Florida to earn an MD and PhD, and to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for his neurosurgery residency. Neurosurgery was particularly appealing because "the hardest thing out there to even understand is the brain," he says. With the bowels, you can remove an inch or a foot, but with the brain, a few millimeters change everything.
WHAT HE'S DOING NOW: These days, Sarkar is probing these millimeters at The Ohio State University Medical Center in Columbus, where he's gotten attention for his work with deep-brain stimulation. In this procedure an implanted device delivers electrical impulses directly to the tissues involved in controlling movements. Patients suffering from tremors related to Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis and treatment-resistant seizures have shown vast improvements afterward, though for reasons that Sarkar freely admits no one understands. "The most honest thing to say to anybody is that it's magic," he says. Just as no one knows why malaria has proved so difficult to vaccinate against, no one knows why deep-brain stimulation helps the body right itself. "Most of what we do we don't know why it works," Sarkar says of neurosurgery.
Sarkar has also continued his father's naming tradition. His own three kids sport the names Angstrom, Tesla and Curie—playground bullies be damned. "We're all going to go to the same group therapy session at a discounted rate," he jokes.