In Their Own Words: Teen Science-Investigators

Q&As with the teen winners of the NIDA-Scholastic Addiction Science Awards

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Kapil Ramachandran, Ethan Guinn, and Shelby Raye were each awarded a NIDA-Scholastic Addiction Science Award at the 2008 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), the premier science competition in the world for high school students. The students were honored for exemplary projects that contribute valuable knowledge to addiction science (the study of addiction and its health consequences).

Heads Up talked with the three young scientists to learn more about the inspiration for their projects, their views on teens in science, and their goals and interests beyond their science achievements.

 

Kapil Vishveshwar Ramachandran, 17, Austin, Texas
Fruit Flies and Alcohol Addiction

Kapil, from Westwood High School in Austin, Texas, won first prize and a cash award of $2,500 for his project, The Novel Role of the GluCl α Ion Channel and Diazepam Binding Genes in Alcohol Addiction. Working with fruit flies in a laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin, Kapil was able to show that the deletion of a specific protein, called Diazepam Binding Inhibitor (DBI), prevented the flies from becoming tolerant to alcohol’s behavioral effects. (Tolerance, in this case, means that the flies are less affected by the alcohol the second time they are exposed to it, compared to the first time.) Kapil’s findings are important because the ability to develop tolerance goes hand in hand with the risk of becoming addicted to a substance.

 

Heads Up: What are your favorite hobbies?
Kapil: Tennis, music, drinking coffee, and taking walks in peaceful environments.

Heads Up: What’s your dream job?
Kapil: I’ve always wanted to be a neurosurgeon.

Heads Up: What sparked your interest in studying addiction?
Kapil: A few years ago I was volunteering at a hospital (manning the information desk, folding sheets, basic busywork) when a patient came in who had overdosed on narcotics and alcohol. Seeing her made me wonder, “Why would someone drive themselves to create so much pain for themselves and their family? What’s the biological basis of addiction?”  I wanted to work in a laboratory, so I started cold-calling professors. After thirty or so “Nos,” I finally got a “Yes.” When I started the work I had no idea that I could even enter a competition. I was motivated by pure curiosity.At that point, I thought becoming a doctor was my only option. I thought PhDs were only for people much smarter than me. Now I know that ordinary high school students can motivate themselves to do such work.

Heads Up: What inspired you to tackle your particular topic?
Kapil: I started working in a laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin, which has a whole section devoted to addiction research. What caught my eye was that you could approach addiction science from a broad perspective, from behavioral science to molecular genetics. Only by looking on the outside can you diagnose what’s on the inside.

Heads Up: What finding most surprised you?
Kapil: I was most surprised to discover that a single protein could influence the risk of becoming an alcoholic.

The protein I studied is called the Diazepam Binding Inhibitor (DBI).  It’s found in humans and in fruit flies.  There have been only a few human studies of this protein and its role in addiction.

We see high levels of DBI in flies that are addicted to alcohol.  (Flies are not naturally alcoholics, of course.  But scientists can create an addiction to alcohol in a fruit fly model for research purposes.)  The higher the protein level, the greater the addiction.

I developed an experiment to measure alcohol tolerance in fruit flies—as a sign of addiction risk.  It's called a "wake-up assay."  Basically, I looked at how fast fruit flies wake up from sedation caused by alcohol.  The second time that a fly that has the DBI protein is exposed to the sedating effects of alcohol, it wakes up faster than the first time. The protein DBI appears to help the fly to develop tolerance to alcohol's effects.  On the other hand, a fly that does not have the DBI protein takes as long to wake up the second time it is sedated with alcohol as the first time.  A fly that does not have the DBI protein does not become tolerant to alcohol's effects  (*see footnote below).

Of course DBI affects more than just alcohol tolerance.  Now I'm studying to find out what else might happen when DBI is removed.

Heads Up: What was the hardest part about the project?
Kapil: I worked on the study for a year and three months.  In science you never know what’s next.  That’s the biggest challenge.  You have to figure out what steps to take to reach the next goal.

Heads Up: Any future plans to study science?
Kapil: I’m going to Duke University to study biomedical engineering and neuroscience. It’s safe to say that science is my calling.

Heads Up: Why do you think it’s important for teens to understand the science behind drug addiction?
Kapil: I suspect most teens today think that there’s no science behind drug addiction.  You get high and that’s awesome.  What’s the big deal if a protein level goes up?  But what they don’t know is that these things cause incredibly long-term changes.  Drugs and alcohol can change the way your neurons fire.  They can create fundamental long-lasting changes [in your body]. If teens knew this, they might reconsider their actions.

Heads Up: What do you think a teen perspective brings to the study of science versus an adult perspective?
Kapil: I’ve talked to teens who are struggling with drug abuse, and I think it makes a difference when you speak eye to eye with a fellow teenager. Maybe that interaction by itself is enough to cure their problems. You never know.

Heads Up: How do you think science and scientific research has helped other parts of your life?
Kapil: Overall it helps me think a lot more logically and [objectively] about problems. [I’ve learned] that science isn’t all about one thing. It’s never just about the Krebs Cycle, for example, it’s about physics and chemistry and small things. Small things that come into the picture, and then you realize, “I’m using physics and biology.” That was a big eye-opener.

Heads Up: What would you say to other students to inspire them to participate in ISEF 2009?
Kapil: ISEF was the pinnacle of our small scientific careers. When you stand up on the ISEF stage and look out, you see the future of science. That’s always on my mind. I know that in ten to fifteen years I’m going to collaborate with many of the people I met at ISEF.

Heads Up: How do you plan to spend your prize money? 
Kapil: I’m planning to buy a laptop.

Heads Up: What’s something that people might not know about you? 
Kapil: They named a minor planet after me. It’s called “KapilRama."

 

Ethan Guinn, 18, Moore, Oklahoma
Video-Game Addiction

Ethan, from Moore High School in Moore, Oklahoma, won second prize and a cash award of $1,500 for his project, Video Games: The Next Generation’s Addiction. He studied 385 students to see whether the rising popularity of video gaming was, in fact, becoming an “addiction” for some players and, if so, how it impacted their lives. Using criteria similar to those that diagnose other addictions, Ethan determined that 62 percent of respondents showed some signs of video-game addiction. His study also showed that video gaming had negative effects on some players’ schoolwork, health, and social skills.

 

Heads Up: What are your favorite hobbies?
Ethan: Video games (ironically), racquetball, watching movies, and writing.

Heads Up: What’s your dream job?
Ethan: I would love to be an animator for a company like Pixar Animation Studios.

Heads Up: What sparked your interest in studying addiction?
Ethan: I like projects dealing with behavioral science, so I decided that an addiction science project would be a great project to tackle.

Heads Up: What inspired you to tackle your particular topic?
Ethan: I knew that my topic was [a growing] problem that was generating a lot of interest. I decided that since I have firsthand experience with the problem, and a large amount of knowledge of the video game industry, [the project would suit me well].

Heads Up: What finding most surprised you?
Ethan: The most surprising findings were the large number of negative effects of video-game addiction, as well as the extremely large number of people affected by video-game addiction.

Heads Up: What was the hardest part about the project?
Ethan: The hardest part of my project was inputting the seemingly endless data I had into Microsoft® Excel®, and then graphing the data in a way that it would be easy for anyone to read.

Heads Up: Any future plans to study science?
Ethan: I would love to continue my research on different age groups, as well as be a science teacher later in life.

Heads Up: How do you think science and scientific research has helped other parts of your life?
Ethan: My accomplishments with the project have given me a lot of exposure to the scientific community, as well as prizes and good information to put on [my] resume. Honestly, going to the International Science Fair was one of the greatest experiences of my life.

Heads Up: What would you say to other students to inspire them to participate in ISEF 2009?
Ethan: I would tell them that ISEF is an experience that is like no other. You meet people from all over the world who have done great things and who are continuing to do great things. ISEF is such a great place to be and it’s full of excitement along with competition. Mostly though, you will gain a sense of pride for your project, respect for your accomplishments, and an untradable experience.

Heads Up: How do you plan to spend your prize money?
Ethan: I'm actually not sure yet, but until someone from ISEF tackles the gasoline crisis, a lot of it will go toward gas!

 

Shelby Raye, 15, Bradenton, Florida
What’s Cool?

Shelby, from Manatee High School in Bradenton, Florida, won third prize and a cash award of $1,000 for her project, What’s In and What’s Out: High Schoolers’ Perceptions of Coolness. She surveyed 389 teens at her high school, ages 14 to 18, to determine what makes someone “cool.” Shelby studied five areas—athletics, academics, social relationships, personal qualities, and risky behaviors—to identify factors that determine “coolness.” Her research points out that teens may engage in risky behaviors as an easy, yet dangerous, way to distinguish themselves as cool. This information may be put to practical use in helping to identify students at risk, and to prevent the escalation of substance-abuse problems.

 

Heads Up: What are your favorite hobbies?
Shelby: Shopping, cross-country running, hanging out with my friends, and community service.

Heads Up: What’s your dream job?
Shelby: Spokeswoman for a teen magazine.

Heads Up: What sparked your interest in studying addiction?
Shelby: I didn’t study addiction specifically, but addiction is quite an obvious problem we are having today, so it is definitely an issue that is interesting to look into.

Heads Up: What inspired you to tackle your particular topic?
Shelby: My topic was something that I was really interested in finding out the results for. I was just thinking one day about what makes a good friend and the word “cool” came to mind; so that got me interested in what a “cool” teenager really is.

Heads Up: What finding most surprised you?
Shelby: I was quite surprised to find out that 17-year-olds thought it was cooler to drink alcohol, smoke, and take part in risky behaviors than any other age group (among 14-, 15-, 16-, and 18-year-olds). This was the same age group that rated themselves as being the coolest [in comparison with other ages].

Heads Up: What was the hardest part about the project?
Shelby: The most difficult part about the project was analyzing the data (figuring out the findings) because statistics get really confusing. That’s where you definitely need a mentor.

Heads Up: Any future plans to study science?
Shelby: I’m hoping to go to ISEF 2009, but I still need to think of a cool science project idea to get me started. I will also be studying a lot of science in 10th grade this year: physics, chemistry, and psychology.

Heads Up: Why do you think addiction science is important?
Shelby: Just from the people around me, I know friends’ parents who are addicted to alcohol and smoking, and teens at my high school who are already addicted to various drugs. Being addicted to anything doesn’t usually have positive outcomes, so it is important that researchers understand the reasons behind addiction and how it can possibly be controlled.

Heads Up: Why do you think it’s important for teens to understand the science behind drug addiction?
Shelby: I believe teens really need to understand the science behind drug addiction because it might make them realize how harmful and dangerous getting into drugs really can be. If teens don’t understand the science behind drug addiction, then they continue to nonchalantly use drugs just for a fun time and don’t connect the true effects that drugs [can have].

Heads Up: What do you think a teen perspective brings to the study of science versus an adult perspective?
Shelby: Teens aren’t interested in the same things as adults, so teens are likely to explore an issue differently than adults would.  

Heads Up: How do you think science and scientific research has helped other parts of your life?
Shelby: Doing the science project has definitely helped me realize that I can have joy in learning. Taking part in the science fair led me to realize that I can succeed at anything I can dream of as long as I put a lot of effort and heart into it.

Heads Up: What would you say to other students to inspire them to participate in ISEF 2009?
Shelby: ISEF really opened my eyes to the world around me. There were teenagers at ISEF from over 40 different countries who spoke all different languages, which gave me a taste of how much diversity there really is. It is also amazing to see how much ambition all the participants have to learn and to achieve. It proves to you that there will be amazing scientists to come in the future. Although judging time is rough, talking to the judges helped me to better explain and present any ideas I have.

Heads Up: How do you plan to spend your prize money? 
Shelby: I plan on putting the money in my bank account to use for college.


Learn more about these teen science-investigators' research projects.

For more information about the NIDA-Scholastic Addiction Science Awards, addiction science topics, and how to enter next year’s Addiction Science Award competition, visit www.drugabuse.gov/sciencefair.

 

*Note from Heads Up: The chances of developing tolerance the first time you are exposed to an abused substance is linked to the risk of becoming addicted to it. Kapil's research helps researchers to better understand the biology behind tolerance. This understanding might lead to new medications to treat alcohol abuse and addiction.

 


(Photos, from left to right: Courtesy of Tejasvi Srivangipuram; Courtesy of Cathy Raye; Courtesy of John Guinn.)

(Courtesy of National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA); Courtesy of Tejasvi Srivangipuram; Courtesy of John Guinn; Courtesy of Cathy Raye.)