While one-third of high school seniors say they have tried electronic cigarettes or other “vaping” devices, Chadds Ford-area teenager Natalia Orlovsky has been busy studying whether they are bad for you.
Smart move. On Tuesday night, Orlovsky, 18, a senior at Garnet Valley High School in Glen Mills, won the $175,000 second prize in the national Regeneron Science Talent Search.
She was among 40 finalists honored at a ceremony in Washington where the biotechnology company doled out more than $1.8 million in prize money. The $250,000 first prize went to New York City’s Benjy Firester, who studied how weather patterns can spread spores of “late blight” fungus — the disease that caused the Irish potato famine of the 1840s.
“Incredibly surprised,” Orlovsky said by phone moments after walking off the stage.
Her honor marks the second year in a row that a Philadelphia-area student has claimed second place in the prestigious competition for high school seniors, which dates to 1942 and is run by the nonprofit Society for Science and the Public. Last year, Conestoga High School’s Aaron J. Yeiser won the $175,000 prize for his mathematical analysis of turbulent air flow.
Conestoga did well again this year, as senior Reese Caldwell was also among the 40 finalists. He and other finalists who were not among the top 10 finishers each earned $25,000 for their projects — in Caldwell’s case, using pulses of light to stimulate the activity of enzymes in synthetic cells.
With vaping, Orlovsky waded into a hot topic where much remains unknown. The primary concern is that the user inhales vapors that usually contain nicotine, an addictive substance. Evidence suggests that users of vaping devices may be at risk of moving on to regular cigarettes — what physicians refer to as a “gateway” effect. On the flip side, the devices may also be useful for adults who are trying to quit traditional cigarettes.
Rather than look at the addictive potential of vaping, Orlovsky studied whether it could damage the lungs. Her conclusion: possibly.
She conducted her research in a University of Pennsylvania lab as part of a tuition-free summer program called Teen Research and Education in Environmental Science (TREES) in which students learn laboratory skills then pursue an independent project under the guidance of a mentor.
She found no evidence that the vapors altered the DNA of human lung cells in lab dishes, but she found that they triggered a chemical “stress response” inside the cell.
Some students in the TREES program need guidance in coming up with a research idea, said Jeffrey Field, a professor in the department of systems pharmacology and translational therapeutics at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine.
Not Orlovsky. She had a clear vision of what she wanted to accomplish, and pursued it with dogged intellectual curiosity, said Field, her mentor.
“My goal with the program is to expose students to science and expose them to academia in a way that doesn’t involve just preparing for the next exam,” Field said. “It’s trying to ask questions that no one really knows the answers to. She certainly got the spirit.”
Orlovsky is also unusual in her willingness to help others, said Hillary Lockard, a biology and chemistry teacher at Garnet Valley who served as the teenager’s sponsor in various science competitions.
Case in point: After spending many hours online in search of various scholarships and research opportunities, Orlovsky felt as if a centralized list would be useful. So she compiled one, and made it available to others at her school, Lockard said.
“She’s just humble and grateful for all of these opportunities,” Lockard said.
The teenager said she thought of studying vaping after hearing from a friend who had studied a related topic in Penn’s TREES program. She said she had never tried vaping herself, and was concerned that the practice was so widespread in teens.
Science smarts run in the family. Orlovsky’s mother, Yevgeniya, is a researcher in the pharmaceutical industry, and her father, Dmitry, is a software engineer, she said.
Though skilled in the sciences, the teenager also has a passion for history, poetry, and math, among other subjects, describing herself as “an everything nerd.” When she started the vaping study the summer before her junior year, she also volunteered on weekends at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, which houses the university’s acclaimed archaeology collection.
The teenager subscribes to the notion that the humanities can provide insight to the study of science, and vice versa.
“Some of the most exciting work currently underway exists in the grey spaces between subject areas,” she wrote. “If there’s one thing I’ve come to see in my time as an ‘everything nerd,’ it’s that there are many ways to look at big questions.”