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High School Student Finds Success In Science

June 10, 2010

Long Island, NY, teenager turns a part-time internship into cutting-edge biomedical innovations and international honors

If you happened to step into the lab at Columbia University’s medical center on a Saturday and saw a young woman named Julia Poje hard at work, you might not think anything was unusual. After all, Poje’s research into using the principles of molecular computing to come up with new detection methods for Ebola and Marburg viruses is exactly the type of cutting-edge research one would expect graduate students to be conducting at a world-class laboratory.

But what’s unique about Poje’s situation at Columbia is that she’s not a grad student. She’s not even an undergrad. In fact, she has yet to even start college. Poje is a high school senior who has spent the past few years as an intern at an NSF-sponsored research project headed by Joanne Macdonald. With Macdonald’s mentoring and encouragement, Poje was able to turn her curiosity about science into a research project that won high honors at the prestigious Intel Fair last month and may one day give doctors in the field a fast and reliable test for deadly diseases.

According to Poje, her passion for science was shaped in part by a lack of television choices. “When I was little, my family didn’t have cable,” she explains, “so instead of watching cartoons I watched Nature and NOVA on PBS. Watching these two shows made me want to learn everything I could about the world around me, and I realized that science often provided the best answers.”

By the time Poje arrived at Columbia for an internship, Macdonald’s lab at the Division of Experimental Therapeutics, Department of Medicine, Columbia University Medical Center was used to putting high school interns to work. When Macdonald was a post-doctoral researcher, her mentor at the time, Milan Stojanovic, had introduced teenage interns to the lab in the afterschool hours. Macdonald realized the students wouldn’t be able to learn much in a couple of hours, so she offered to have the students come in for a full day on Saturdays as well. This enabled them to be important participants in the work taking place there. “They’re actually doing real science,” Macdonald explains.

Macdonald and her colleagues work in molecular computing, a relatively new field of science that looks at ways certain molecules can mimic the characteristics of transistors in computer circuits. Just as electric transistors can be programmed to perform certain calculations and tasks, molecular computer scientists have found that molecules such as enzymes and DNA can be arrayed and programmed to perform logic functions and other basics of computing. Macdonald’s work focuses on how these molecules can be used as detectors of specific pathogens such as viruses.

During her time at Columbia, Poje has worked on filoviruses, a group of viruses that include Ebola and Marburg, two pathogens that can cause severe damage to the blood and organs of humans, frequently resulting in death. Yet for all their danger, scientists know relatively little about filoviruses, and so they offered an intriguing challenge for Poje.

Poje’s work has focused on using so-called logic gates comprised of deoxyribozyme to create a reliable detector for Ebola and Marburg. “Basically,” Poje explains, “the logic gates are enzymes that will only be activated in the presence of a specific 15-base-pair DNA or RNA sequence, which in this case is a specific sequence from the Ebola or Marburg genome.” In Poje’s detection system, the molecules stimulate a florescent substrate that displays an “E” for Ebola and an “M” for Marburg.

In February, Poje presented her work, “A Molecular Automation with Built-in Visual Display for Filovirus Identification,” at the Long Island Science and Engineering Fair, garnering a perfect score from one of the judges and a job offer from another judge who is a researcher at Brookhaven National Labs. Her recognition at the Long Island Fair earned her a spot at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, a prestigious international science competition for high school students, held last month in San Jose, Calif. Competing against more than 1,600 students from more than 50 countries, Poje won two second-place awards. Poje says the best part “was being able to be around a bunch of people who had also been doing research of the same caliber as mine–it was awesome to see what they had been doing.”

Although she had taken Advanced Placement science courses at her school, the internship made her project possible. “Without my lab at Columbia,” she says, “I wouldn’t have had a project. It would have been impossible.”

Poje will return to Columbia this summer to continue working on her detector and will then attend Colorado College in the fall, where she says she’s “pretty sure” she’ll be majoring in biology. For her part, Macdonald says she plans on continuing to hosting high school interns at her lab. “It’s really fun,” she says of her experience with the students. “I love working with them; their enthusiasm is really a breath of fresh air.”

Image Caption: Julia Poje, a Long Island, N.Y., high school student, is shown at this year’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. As an intern at the Division of Experimental Therapeutics, Department of Medicine, Columbia University Medical Center, Poje worked on creating a detection system for filoviruses, a group of viruses that include Ebola and Marburg. This work won her high honors at the fair this year in San Jose, Calif. Credit: Courtesy of Julia Poje

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