Melanie Smith held a fidgety white mouse in her hands as she discussed brain chemistry, behavioral conditioning and neuroscience.
"When I was younger, when I saw a mouse, I used to jump on the table," said Smith, this year's valedictorian at Western High School. "I think I've progressed from that."
That's an understatement.
Just two weeks ago, Smith won a $5,000 scholarship at the 42nd International Science and Engineering Fair in Orlando, Fla., for her prize-winning entry, "The Effects of Abnormal Brain Development on the Behavior of Mice."
A scientific paper based on her work and that of collaborators will be presented to the Society for Neuroscience at its annual meeting in New Orleans this November.
And Smith, 17, who plans to study biology on a full scholarship as a Meyerhoff Scholar at the University of Maryland Baltimore County this September, plans a career in pediatric neurology.
"Science is something that can be mastered -- it's not something to be afraid of," said Smith. "All it is, is asking questions and trying the best to answer them with the technology we have."
She has a high school resume bejeweled with achievements, such as:
* 1991 Western High School valedictorian and National Honor Society member, with a 94 academic average.
* President of the Western High School student government and secretary of the Associated Student Congress of Baltimore City.
* A lead actress in this year's school production of Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth."
* Accepted at Johns Hopkins University, Bryn Mawr College, Wellesley College, Vassar College, St. Mary's College of Maryland and the University of Rochester.
She also works as a computer lab assistant at her high school, tutors fellow students in math and algebra, and was a member of Western's championship badminton team.
As of last week, she had planned to attend St. Mary's College on a full scholarship.
But she changed her mind after being offered a slot in UMBC's Meyerhoff Scholar program, which is intended to recruit top African-American students into the fields of science and engineering.
"Sometimes I just sit and I look around and I think, 'I can't really believe that this is me, Melanie Smith, doing this stuff,' " said Smith, who lives in north Baltimore with her mother, Lucy.
But those who know her are less reserved.
Sandra Wighton, principal of Western, called Smith "a tremendous role model for the other students. . . . You never see her in a negative mood."
She just has an extraordinary ability to grasp concepts," said Christine F. Hohmann, the assistant professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University Medical School who served as Smith's mentor.
And Smith's most recent achievement -- the $5,000 science fair scholarship from the National Head Injury Foundation -- comes in a field where women and minorities are underrepresented.
"A lot of women, it does not occur to them to choose scientific careers, because it still looks like something men do," said Hohmann.
For Smith, however, science comes naturally.
"When I was younger, I remember playing with the chemicals in the bathroom," she confessed, a little sheepishly. "Shaving cream and alcohol . . . I was fascinated when it just disappeared."
Smith got her first taste of the scientific world last summer in a program funded by the National Science Foundation and sponsored by the city school system and the College of Notre Dame.
The program is intended to boost interest in scientific careers among women. Students attend a five-week program on the Notre Dame campus, followed by a three-week internship in a laboratory.
Smith was placed in a neuroscience laboratory at Johns Hopkins University Medical School, with Hohmann as her mentor.
She learned basic laboratory techniques and worked as a technician, staining slides of mouse brain slices and cell cultures used in neuroscience research.
After the three weeks, Hohmann asked her to stay.
"I was just amazed at how fast she caught on to concepts," said Hohmann. And after Smith learned the ropes, "we decided it was time to find a real experiment for her to do."
That proved to be the genesis of Smith's winning science fair project.
Hohmann is an expert in brain development as it relates to mental retardation. She has studied brain abnormalities in animals that mimic those found in people with mental retardation and Down's syndrome.
But Hohmann had not had an opportunity to study whether those abnormalities are directly linked to differences in behavior.
That's where Smith's experiment came in.
In her junior year at Western, "I was a 'hugger' in the Special Olympics," says Smith. "I was interested in people with Down's syndrome."
Smith agreed to do a pilot experiment proposed by Hohmann, using mice to test the possible connection between such brain abnormalities and behavior.
Though Hohmann suggested the experiment, Smith made it a reality, drawing up the experimental plan and evaluating the data.
She found that the mice with abnormal brain development showed signs of hyperactivity and appeared to forget more quickly behavior they had learned in the laboratory.
"I was very excited," says Hohmann. "With a relatively small sample of animals, we already see some real differences."
Smith used the experiment as the basis of her prize-winning project at the Orlando science fair.
While at Orlando, she came face to face with the scarcity of blacks and women in the field of science.
"There were about 10 to 15 black people out of 750 -- I just couldn't believe it," says Smith. "I knew there was a really big problem."
And Smith, who holds to her dream of being a doctor, is determined to plow ahead against any societal stereotypes.
"I just don't let it bother me," she says. "I've always been taught if you want something, go get it. Don't let anything get in your way."