Stellar work by young scientist honored
By Alice Keesing
Advertiser Education Writer
When Hawai'i student Cara Chang looks to the sky, she knows there's a piece of it named after her.
Circling somewhere near Jupiter is a piece of extraterrestrial real estate called the Cara Chang Asteroid.
Such a distinctive honor is usually reserved for those who discover asteroids or for luminaries like the Beatles and Vincent Van Gogh. Cara got her name in space because she's a remarkable young scientist.
Last week, Cara went to Washington as one of 40 finalists for the title of America's Top Young Scientist of the Year in the third annual Discovery Young Scientist Challenge. She was the only finalist from Hawai'i. During the week, she and the nation's other top young scientists competed in science challenges and went behind the scenes with some of the country's leading researchers. The asteroid was part of the package.
Cara agrees it's "pretty cool" to have an asteroid on her list of assets. She's still waiting for exact details of its location, but she jokes that she can develop the several kilometers of space rock as she wishes, "like putting a Starbucks on it."
Cara won her way to the Washington challenge by winning at the state science fair. Her project comes with the weighty title: "Do Oriental Fruit Flies have a Preference Between Genetically Modified and Organically Grown Papayas."
Beneath the long title is an important question for Hawai'i, which has to treat its papayas for fruit flies before they can be shipped out. Cara worked with Lyle Wong at the Hawai'i Department of Agriculture and found that fruit flies did prefer the genetically modified papaya.
All this is impressive stuff, especially given that Cara began the project at the tender age of 11 at St. Andrew's Priory. She's now in the seventh grade at Iolani. Her mother, Joyce, says Cara has always been drawn to science; by age 3, she was able to name every dinosaur.
Cara says her interest was sparked by science classes at the priory, where they emphasize science and math and encourage girls to break into male-dominated careers such as engineering and bioscience.
Cara also reads the paper to stay up to date on new areas of research. Aside from her "gee-whiz" fascination with what technology can do, she demonstrates a mature appreciation of the social possibilities and problems of manipulating nature.
At the Washington challenge, Cara won the Travel Channel Dream Science Trip Award for her essay describing her desire to visit Australian scientists who are on the cutting edge of
stem cell research and have found a way to harvest stem cells from the brains of mice.
"This is important because this will reduce the need for human embryos used for research," she says in her essay.
Stem cell research has the promise of allowing scientists to grow body organs or develop cures for diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. Cara watches her grandfathers get older and sees a real need for those cures.
"This research provides SO much promise for them and countless others," she wrote in her essay. "Also, the September 11 tragedy has made me so much more aware that we must do our part in making the world a better place."
Yup. Those words are from the pen of a 12-year-old. The future is looking brighter already.
Reach Alice Keesing at firstname.lastname@example.org or 525-8014.