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Talented Teens Work To Solve Serious Health Problems

La Jolla High School Junior Meredith Lehman, 15, explains a graph that shows the peak and duration of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, April 13, 2011.
Kyla Calvert
La Jolla High School Junior Meredith Lehman, 15, explains a graph that shows the peak and duration of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, April 13, 2011.
Talented Teens Work To Solve Serious Health Problems
Three San Diego girls are taking part in a competition for high school students who are doing research that can have real-world impacts.

Playing cello or violin in the San Diego Youth Symphony or being an accomplished equestrian might be more than enough to keep your average teenager busy.

But those impressive accomplishments just scratch the surface of what San Diego high schoolers Meredith Lehmann, Alice Fang and Sharona Silverstein spend their free time doing. The three will join 57 other juniors and seniors in Washington, D.C. this weekend for the Young Epidemiology Scholars, or YES, Competition.

They'll present their original public health research to compete for up to $50,000 in college scholarships. But, Fang, a violinist and senior at Torrey Pines High School, said that’s not even what she’s most excited about.


“Definitely presenting my work to the judges and hearing their comments and trying to answer their questions," she said. "I’m also really excited about seeing the research my peers have done because that’s always really inspiring to see. My research always seems much less awesome that everyone else’s.”

Fang’s research focused on finding which students were most at risk for being physically inactive. The results surprised even her.

“Usually when we look at direct intervention you try to get students who are overweight or obese to take PE classes, but my results show that students who are very underweight are also at risk," she said. "So – I guess my results reveal that there really is a hidden risk group that we should really take the very underweight students into consideration as well when we try to direct intervention and attention.”

Fifteen-year-old La Jolla High School Junior Meredith Lehmann is interested in using math to find better ways to intervene and stop the spread of epidemics. She started studying diseases three years ago with an eighth grade project on the spread of the 1918 flu epidemic.

“At the time there was the Avian Flu and the West Nile Virus going on and I was really interested in what might be causing those kinds of things and how they affect us as a society and was thinking, well maybe this is something I could look at,” she said.


Lehmann’s research for this weekend’s competition looked at the role long-distance car travel played in the spread of SARS, something professional researchers have never investigated. Her data sets are so complex she uses a machine at the San Diego Supercomputer Center to work with them. Yet, still finds time to also use the corner of her parents’ living room that is set aside for practicing the cello.

The College Board started the YES Competition eight years ago to encourage students like Lehmann to pursue public health careers. By the year 2020, The Association of Schools of Public Health predicts that the country will be short a quarter of a million public health workers. The program, which is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, has a track record of drawing students whose research produces real impacts, according to Diane Tsukamaki, director of the College Board's national recognition and scholarship programs.

“We had a project last year that was on energy drinks and that student actually went on to make a number of recommendations and to distribute information about energy drinks to students,” she said.

The San Diego students competing this weekend have suggestions for how the work they’ve done could be used to improve public policy. Sharona Silverstein has placed first at the last four Greater San Diego Science and Engineering Fairs. Horseback rider and Patrick Henry High School junior studied how sleep patterns affect mental well being in dental students. As she suspected, the sleep deprived were more likely to experience negative moods.

“I actually think that people at universities should counsel students on what is an appropriate amount of sleep and how much sleep they should get and how many times they should nap in order to stay healthy and stay alert,” she said.

About 75 percent of the competition’s finalists go on to declare public health-related majors in college, according to Tsukamaki. The San Diego competitors aren’t ready to commit to that yet, but that doesn’t mean they plan to close the door on years of research.

“I really like a lot of different areas of math and science – but I do intend to continue this research. So, hopefully, even if don’t choose that as my major I’ll be able to continue the work,” said Lehmann.

It’s that kind of dedication that Tsukamaki said will turn this weekend’s competitors into the country’s public health leaders of tomorrow.