When I was at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston last week, I popped by the American Junior Academy of Science poster session featuring the work of high school scientists. I'll admit one of the reasons was because I saw an Evelyn from Texas in the abstract booklet. Being rather fond of both my name and my home state, I wanted to meet her.
Evelyn Ho is a senior at Plano Senior High School, just 20 minutes from my parents' house. The summer before her sophomore year of high school, her grandfather died of Parkinson's disease, and her grandmother was diagnosed with the disease. "I saw how it affected our family dynamic and how we had to work with that and around that," says Ho. "I remember something my mother said at my grandfather's funeral. She was talking about the kids—the ones younger than me—and she said, 'they never got to see your grandfather healthy; they were born too late.' That stuck with me."
When Ho got back from her grandfather's funeral that summer, she started contacting scientists in the Dallas area who study Parkinson's disease. Several of the researchers recommended that she wait a few years, but Dr. Dwight German invited her to visit his lab at UT Southwestern Medical School in Dallas. "We talked a bit, and at the end he asked, 'when do you start?'"
Since meeting German, Ho has worked on two Parkinson's research projects. The one she presented at the AAAS meeting is preliminary work on finding a blood test to diagnose Parkinson's disease. Neural degeneration due to Parkinson's disease can begin long before symptoms are apparent, in part because the body compensates for a while before tremors and walking difficulties become problematic.
Ho's screening approach uses peptiods, synthetic molecules similar to naturally-occurring peptides, which are made up of amino acids. Ho wanted to see if certain peptiods would selectively bind with blood from people with Parkinson's disease as opposed to blood from age-matched healthy individuals. She tested approximately 375,000 peptiods from a library of about 10,000,000 and found one that does seem to bind much better with blood serum from Parkinson's patients. The work is, of course, in its infancy, but she hopes that eventually she can contribute to better detection of Parkinson's disease and a better understanding of the disease biomarkers themselves.
Ho doesn't yet know where she will go to college next year or what she will major in. In addition to her interest in biomedical research, she likes her English and history classes as well, and she also plays the violin. Viola would be better, but I'm not holding that against her.
My other favorite project was by Katie Buhler, a young woman from Kansas who did her research when she was only in middle school. She likes to sew, just like me, and wanted to test the resilience of different fabric types. People who sew develop an instinctive feel for how certain fabrics respond to different conditions, but Buhler wanted to use science to quantify that instinct. She exposed wool, cotton, polyester, rayon, and silk fabric to fire, water, and weight and kept track of which fabrics lasted longest or, in the case of water, absorbed the least. In all the trials, the wool fabric was the most resilient. To top it off, she wore a beautifully constructed red wool vest that she had made herself to the poster session.
I was impressed by all the young scientists I met at the AJAS poster session. I know it's cheesy, but a few minutes in there reminded me that there are always fresh faces coming into science, full of optimism and new ideas.