Girls rocking science

My daughter begged me not to sign her up for her school’s LEGO League (a robotics program designed to ignite kids’ interest in science and technology) — among other reasons, because most of the participants are boys. Being that she was only in first grade, I let it drop.

The three winners of Google’s Global Science Fair 2011 (sponsored by LEGO as well as CERN, National Geographic and Scientific American) didn’t let it drop, but instead saw an opportunity in using the web as a way to share their experiments and their findings with scientists across the globe.

All three are girls, and all are from the U.S., where being interested in science isn’t necessarily considered cool. They rose to the top of a pool of some 10,000 entries, narrowed down to a group of 15 finalists who journeyed to Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. for the ceremonies last night.

Grand prize winner Shree Bose, 17, a Texan interviewed on NPR, had findings that could improve care of ovarian cancer, delving into cancer cells’ resistance to the chemotherapy agent cisplatin.

Her experiments, conducted over two summers, showed that an enzyme known as AMPK plays a role in development of cisplatin resistance. Based on studies in cisplatin-resistant and non-resistant cancer cells, Bose concludes that inhibiting AMPK decreases the effectiveness of cisplatin in the initial stages of treatment, but once the cancer cells form resistance to cisplatin, adding an AMPK inhibitor boosts effectiveness of the treatment. She won $50,000 and a trip to the Galapagos Islands.

Lauren Hodge, in the 13-14 age category, investigated whether different marinades for grilled chicken would increase or decrease levels of the carcinogen phenylmethylimidazopyridine upon grilling (thumbs up for lemon juice and brown sugar).

Naomi Shah, in the 15-16 age bracket, sampled the air in the homes and workplaces of 103 people with and without asthma and had them record their peak expiratory flow rate for 7 days, providing evidence that air pollutants compromise respiratory function in asthma. Her findings even suggest that a new category of pollutant, Total Volatile Organic Compounds (TVOCs), deserves to be regulated by the EPA under the Clean Air Act.

A special shout-out to the science teachers behind the scenes who coached and mentored these young scientists and served as judges.  Science teachers work hard and don’t make nearly as much money as they should for nurturing young talent. As for the students, I hope to meet one of them someday during my rounds as a science writer at Children’s Hospital Boston, so I can write a press release on their breakthrough research findings.