Legend has it that the Fountain of Youth restores the youth of anyone who bathes in its waters. For centuries, we have been captivated by the question of how we age. Local high school junior Caleb Smith is tackling that question.
Smith, 16, conducts scientific research that sheds light on how fruit flies --and ultimately, humans – age. Smith was among 1,200 participants in the LA County Science Fair on March 27-29. He won First Place in his category and was one of 7 students who qualified for the prestigious Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF).
Every year, approximately 7 million high school students strive to reach Intel ISEF, the world’s largest pre-college science competition. Intel ISEF showcases top young scientific minds on a global stage where doctoral-level scientists judge their work. Only the best and brightest – 1,600 winners of local, regional, state, and national competitions spanning over 70 countries -- are invited to present their independent research and compete for over $4 million in awards.
Smith’s research project, “Quantitative Analysis of the Role of Mitochondria in Drosophila melanogaster Lifespan” was entered in the Animal Physiology category. “Drosophila melanogaster” is a species of fruit fly.
Scientists knew that as flies age, their mitochondria – the cell’s energy-producing “power plants” -- do not function at the same level as they did before. However, scientists did not know how the quantity of mitochondria affects lifespan – until Smith’s research.
Smith nurtured 88 flies, carefully tracking each fly’s mitochondria and lifespan. His analysis showed that flies with more mitochondria tend to live longer. This finding may one day enable scientists to predict lifespan based upon the amount of mitochondria in one’s cells. Scientists may also develop drugs to increase mitochondria in specific tissues, ultimately increasing lifespan.
Smith, an aspiring neurosurgeon, has been conducting research since early sophomore year. His interest was sparked by hearing Dr. Keith Black, neurosurgeon and research scientist, share his passion for both treating patients and conducting research. When asked what he enjoys most about research, Smith responded, “It’s fun to discover something new and be the only person in the world who knows it.”
To find his research opportunity, Smith scoured university websites for professors with intriguing research topics. He sent scores of emails describing his coursework and areas of interest. Smith sought out genetics-related projects because he had enjoyed a summer genetics course in the Johns Hopkins University Center Scholars Program (Center for Talented Youth.)
After weeks of anxiously checking emails – and receiving a host of rejections, Smith finally received a positive response from Dr. John Tower, an expert in the molecular genetics of aging at USC. “I will never forget that day …I still have the email!” said Smith. Smith interviewed, joined the lab, and is now mentored by Professor Tower and Research Assistant Gary Landis. With their guidance, and the support of his Palos Verdes Peninsula High School Science Research teacher Peter Starodub, Smith designed his own research question and experiment.
“If you don’t know where to start,” said Smith, “start by asking a question about everyday life. A question can become a research project. Or read a professor’s papers and come up with an idea that takes the research in a new direction. Find a problem that has not been solved, and be the one to solve it.”
Smith will represent LA County at the 2014 California State Science Fair at California Science Center on April 28-29. He will compete at Intel ISEF at the LA Convention Center on May 11-16.