"SMART" TEENS TAKE THEIR LOVE FOR SCIENCE TO THE NEXT LEVEL
Talk for just a few minutes with Sarah Brantley, Trey Frost and Cassidy Horton and you quickly realize these are three smart kids. So it is only apropos this trio of incoming high school seniors from Bossier Schools is in the SMART program.
SMART is the acronym for Science and Medicine Academic Research Training Program and is a partnership between the BioMedical Research Foundation of Northwest Louisiana and Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center. Students from Bossier, Caddo and Desoto Parishes compete for one of a handful of coveted spots in the SMART program, enabling them to work in labs at the BioMed Center under the guidance and mentorship of doctors and their research teams.
One way to describe it is a science fair project on steroids. Brantley loves it, though. The Airline High School student has wanted to be in the SMART program since her freshman year when her AIM teacher told her about. Now, she’s living her dream.
This summer Brantley is learning about hereditary angioedema, or HAE for short. It is a rare, genetic disorder that causes serious swelling in people who have mutations of the gene. In some cases, it causes asphyxiation and subsequent death. Brantley said in years past, some people may have mistakenly thought a loved one died from a wasp sting or allergic reaction, when in fact it was from HAE.
“It happens in your extremities, face, abdomen,” Brantley explains. “If your parents have it, you have it, although it’s rare.” Her research team is now genotyping an entire family in South Louisiana that has it to see where the mutation is occurring in hopes of developing a drug to counteract it.
Frost is forging new ground with his project. When the Benton High School senior tried to research his topic, he said “It’s so new I couldn’t even find anything on it on Wikipedia.” Frost and his team are investigating how human cytomegalo virus (HCMV) transforms monocytes into macrophages.
He admits it was overwhelming at first; not the topic itself, but rather learning his way around the laboratories and reading the papers his team had written and the research they had already conducted. He is accustomed to challenges, though. Frost is captain of his soccer team and attained the rank of Eagle Scout. Now his goal is to pursue his M.D.
Attending medical school is Horton’s plan, too. The Airline High School senior aspires to dedicate her life doing medical mission work in Africa. In fact, she is leaving for a mission trip there later this week. Right now, though, she is engrossed in learning about Francisella Tularensis. That is a bacteria that causes Tularemia, more commonly referred to as “rabbit fever,” which has been found in Arkansas. Rabbits are most often the carriers of the disease, which explains the name, and it can be airborne or intradermal. It is so dangerous of a biologic agent that it is on the same level as anthrax and ebola.
“If inhaled, it has a 90-percent fatality rate,” Horton said.
She calls the SMART program “very intense.” But added, “I wanted to do medicine. I love science. I knew two other people who participated in the program and they loved it.” Horton also felt it would help her when it came time to compete for college scholarships.
“I want to be able to have a full ride,” she smiled.
There is a good chance all three of these students will have a “full ride” after graduation. Curtis Smith, 6-12 Science Coordinator for Bossier Schools, said the projects they are working on will be presented for the prestigious Seimon Westinghouse award, Junior Science and Humanities Symposium at LSU and the Regional and State Science Fairs. Historically, SMART students excel in those competitions. They are also considered for admission to prestigious colleges and universities across the country and offered substantial scholarships and grants.
“These kids have a passion and we want to provide an outlet,” Jay Meyers said. He is the Senior Director of Development at Biomedical Research Foundation of Northwest Louisiana. Meyers explained that years ago, it was difficult to recruit people in the science field to locate here.
“So we thought ‘why not grow our own?’” That is how it began in 1995.
As for what students gain from the experience, it is immeasurable. Not only are Brantley, Frost and Horton becoming knowledgeable and conducting valuable research, but they are also receiving a stipend this summer. During the school year, their work at BioMed will continue and they will receive science credits.
Smart kids? You bet. And you can bet they will be tomorrow’s doctors and researchers that find vaccines and cures for diseases that plague the world.