As Caleb Smith watched the video of a Sudanese land mine victim using a prosthetic arm to eat unassisted for the first time in seven years, he was struck by the ability of science to fundamentally change a human life.
Smith, who recently finished his junior year at Palos Verdes Peninsula High School, was participating in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) in mid-May. The video was part of a talk given by a scientist who invented a 3-D printer that could create relatively inexpensive prosthetic limbs for land mine victims.
I knew his research would give a good story to talk about.
“The story was really motivational for everyone at ISEF, showing how the science we’re working on now can be used to help other people in ways we can’t even imagine,” Smith said.
The 16-year-old wants to make a scientific impact of his own.
Since the beginning of his sophomore year, he has been conducting research on aging and longevity in Professor John Tower’s laboratory at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. Smith recently earned the opportunity to attend ISEF in downtown Los Angeles and present his research on tissue mitochondrial content and life span in Drosophila melanogaster, a species of fruit fly. He won a third-place Grand Award of $1,000 at the fair in the animal sciences category.
The findings of his research might one day give rise to a life span prediction model or lead to the development of drugs that increase mitochondria content in body tissues, thereby increasing life span.
“I knew his research would give a good story to talk about,” Tower said. “Caleb does a great job of presenting his research and the logic behind it.”
ISEF, the world’s largest international pre-college science competition, brings together nearly 1,800 young scientists representing 70 nations to compete for accolades and $5 million in prizes. The fair is sponsored by the tech giant Intel and the nonprofit Society for Science and the Public.
“The best part of Intel was seeing the humanitarian impact of everyone’s research projects,” Smith said. “They all had future impact for our society, and some of them had an almost immediate impact, where scientists could use the techniques of someone my age to make a difference in their research. It was very inspirational.”
The road to victory
Smith qualified for ISEF after winning first place in the animal physiology category at the Los Angeles County Science Fair, competing with nearly 1,200 other students in late March. He also represented LA County at the 2014 California State Science Fair in late April, winning second place in the zoology category.
Smith’s research analyzed how mitochondrial abundance affects the fly’s life span. A cell’s mitochondria generate cellular energy. He tagged the mitochondria of 88 fruit flies with green fluorescent protein (GFP) and used cameras to gather video data on individual flies and quantify the amount of green fluorescence. His research concluded that mitochondrial quantity correlates with life span in Drosophila melanogaster flies.
Smith’s collaboration with Tower began about two years ago after Smith, an aspiring neurosurgeon, emailed Tower asking about possible research opportunities. Tower became interested when he learned Smith had taken a summer genetics course in the Center Scholars Program (Center for Talented Youth) at Johns Hopkins University, Tower’s alma mater.
“We had never had a high school student in our lab before, but it’s worked out very well,” Tower said. “Caleb has a wonderful attitude, he’s very inquisitive and interested in everything going on. He is always very positive about the research, which he clearly enjoys, and he’s always looking for ways to help me and other people in the lab.”
Impressive research skills
Samantha Wathugala, 17, is a scientific thinker through and through.
After doing research in the Armani Research Lab, winning first place at the LA County Science Fair and getting fourth place at ISEF, she still summed up her experience noting the lack of a control group.
“This is my first time working in a lab at all, doing relevant research, and I think I did a good job,” she said with a smile. “But I have no basis for comparison!”
Her mother’s chance encounter with a USC faculty member led to emails with USC Dornsife Professor Andrea Armani. After a Skype interview, Armani invited Wathugala to join her lab for the summer.
Wathugala finished her junior year at Palos Verdes Peninsula High School last June and four days later, she was on the bus to USC.
Mentored by PhD student Mark Harrison, Wathugala set to work preparing silica sol gels with slightly varied recipes to see how it affected the properties of the thin glass coatings.
Harrison was impressed with the teen’s research skills.
“She had very creative ideas about how to approach problems in her project,” he said. “Her ideas, as well as her ability to ask very good questions about what she was working on particularly impressed me, as those are skills that I don’t think many high school-aged people have.”
With her successful high school research career behind her, Wathugala is headed to the University of California, Berkeley, where she’ll major in electrical engineering and computer science, or as she calls it, EECS, pronounced phonetically as “eeks.”
Katie McKissick contributed to this article.