Student reaches for top

Broadneck senior a national semifinalist in science competition

January 21, 2007|By Susan Gvozdas | Susan Gvozdas,Special to the Sun

A Broadneck High School senior's radiation experiment has earned her $1,000 for college and $1,000 for her high school science department, and a place among the best science students in the country.

Danna Thomas, 17, was named one of 300 national semifinalists last week in the Intel Science Talent Search, often referred to as the junior Nobel Prize because six former finalists have gone on to win that honor.

She is the only semifinalist from the county this year and one of only 22 from Maryland.

Thomas' research, "Cell Survival, Genomic Instability, and Bystander Effects Induced by Ionizing Radiation," has promise for future discoveries, according to competition officials.

Thomas became interested in the effects of radiation in the sixth grade when the increasing use of cell phones raised concern about exposure to low levels of radiation. So far, studies have not shown any negative effects, but the idea that radiation can both help and harm the body intrigued Thomas.

Her interest grew from reading about the effects of radiation on survivors of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion in 1986 and from the X-rays she underwent in her doctor's and dentist's offices.

"Radiation has always been really interesting to me in that it's a double-edged sword," Thomas said.

In her sophomore year, Thomas developed a lead cover for police radar guns when she learned that some officers have developed testicular cancer because of radiation emitted from the devices resting in their laps. Her father helped her file for a patent, which is pending.

In her junior year, she sought out professors at the University of Maryland to serve as mentors. It was at the university's medical school lab for radiation oncology that she used a special electron microbeam that could isolate a small section of cells and expose them to radiation.

Her experiments showed that damaging effects can be passed on to nearby "innocent bystander" cells, although the effect does not always lead to diseases such as cancer.

"We know the cell lines are talking to each other, but we just don't know what they're saying," Thomas said.

In May, her research won third place in the medicine and health division of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, one of the largest pre-college science competitions worldwide. Thomas was awarded $1,000 for that competition and plans to use her prizes to help pay for college.

The Science Service, a nonprofit organization, will select 40 Intel finalists by Jan. 31. They will attend the Science Talent Institute from March 8 to 13 in Washington. At a black-tie gala March 13, 10 students will be chosen for scholarships totaling $500,000 -- with the top winner receiving a $100,000 scholarship. All finalists will be awarded a laptop computer and have the opportunity to display their research at the National Academy of Sciences.

Thomas' 20-page research presentation initially was judged by two panels consisting of 110 scientists, mathematicians and engineers, said Katherine Silkin, program manager for the Intel Science Talent Search. Judges also looked at essays, transcripts, activities and recommendations. The panel eventually whittled down the list of 1,705 applicants.

The panel at Science Service was looking for research that potentially could help people, Silkin said. The search is seen as a training ground for scientists such as Frank Wilczek, who won the Nobel Prize for physics in 2004. He was a finalist in the Science Service competition in 1967.

Wearing a gray T-shirt with the word "Dreamer" spelled out in white, Thomas spoke of her desire to become a doctor and eventually operate her own research laboratory. Although she was deferred for early admission to Stanford University, she still hopes to attend the school in California. She has applied to seven other schools, including Harvard University and the Johns Hopkins University.

Thomas, who carries a 4.36 grade point average, is ranked 11th out of 518 students in her senior class this year. She also is president of the school's National Honor Society chapter, plays clarinet and saxophone and is drum major in the marching band.

Broadneck's science department would like to use its share of the $1,000 award to help pay for the robotics club's projects and competitions. The money could also fund other student projects, such as Thomas', at local laboratories, said Pat Neidhardt, chairwoman of the science department. No Broadneck student has won the award since she started at the school in 1982, Neidhardt said.

She said the prestige of the award and the prize money likely will influence other students.

"Not only is this mentally challenging but economically lucrative," Neidhardt said. "Colleges are expensive and everyone's looking for a way to fund it."

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