Curiosity about juice box puts city student in science contest finals

January 26, 1994|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,Staff Writer

A little juice box could lead to a $40,000 scholarship for Baltimore's Jennifer Kalish.

Studying the inner lining of the plastic containers has made the Bryn Mawr School senior a finalist for the top prize in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, a prestigious contest won by five who went on to receive Nobel Prizes.

Ms. Kalish was one of 40 nationwide finalists named yesterday to compete for a total of $205,000 in scholarships. She is the first Westinghouse finalist from Baltimore in 35 years.

"She is a whiz in terms of her willingness," said Stephanie Miller, Ms. Kalish's science teacher.

"She is normally such a calm person, but when she received the news yesterday, all she wanted to do was call her father -- and she forgot his number."

Since late 1992, Ms. Kalish, 17, has studied how traces of aluminum -- from foil, pots and pans, and cans of food -- affect human cells and could be related to kidney disease and Alzheimer's disease.

Her research started in the lunchroom at Bryn Mawr, when she ripped open a juice carton and discovered a thin aluminum lining. Curious about how particles of the metal would affect the human system, she went to the library and looked up research on aluminum toxicity.

When she realized that very little research had been done on the topic, she got down to work. Analyzing the food contents of aluminum food containers with a solution of distilled water, acid and ammonia, Ms. Kalish learned that traces of the metal had leached into the food.

In September, she expanded her research to a graduate lab at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and Hygiene, where she is now studying whether aluminum poses a threat to human cells.

"I just want to know the answer. Aluminum is used so much daily and, in general, people don't see potential danger; but no one has looked into it," said Ms. Kalish, an intense competitor who adheres to a busy schedule.

Her research will compete against other Westinghouse finalists' projects, including a homemade wind tunnel, the use of psycholinguistics to teach children with language disabilities, and a study of whether human brain tissue can repair itself after a stroke.

Westinghouse Electric Corp. scholarships will be awarded in mid-March to 10 students selected after interviews with a panel of leading U.S. scientists. The event is sponsored by the nonprofit Science Service organization in Washington.

"The judges will try to learn the breadth of scientific knowledge and experience and about the finalists' original thinking and curiosity," said Jay McCaffrey, a Westinghouse spokesman. "They are all exceptionally brilliant. This process shows what is needed to succeed later in life in their scientific careers. You can see that when they are 16 and 17 years old."

Past Westinghouse finalists have earned mathematics' highest award, the Fields Medal, and MacArthur Foundation research fellowships, Mr. McCaffrey said.

Ms. Kalish, a karate black belt and a point guard on Bryn Mawr's basketball team, joins a growing number of young women entering the once male-dominated field of science, said Sharon Manley, an official of Science Service.

"Over the years, more women are getting involved, and it's not only the 'nerd' type. That's fading," she said. "What we want are average kids who have discovered something or have built on something new. Whatever they got their spark from, they are interested in science and are sticking to it."

Ms. Kalish is the daughter of a former high school science teacher and an anesthesiologist. She has won numerous awards at the Baltimore Science Fair.

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