The prestigious Intel International Science and Engineering Fair has recognized a Tucson High Magnet School student for research – conducted at The University of Arizona's BIO5 Institute – which could one day help lead to new medications to treat addictions, delusions and other mental illnesses.
Angela Schlegel, who graduated from high school this spring, placed second in the Plant Sciences Grand Award category. She will receive $1500 in cash, and also will have a minor planet or asteroid named in her honor. The Intel ISEF is the largest – and most competitive – high school science fair in the world, with 1,250 students from more than 50 countries vying for honors there.
Schlegel did her award-winning work in the lab of BIO5 member and UA Associate Professor of Plant Sciences David Gang. "Angela is an outstanding young researcher," Gang said. "She has performed work as a high school student that is comparable to what most graduate students do in this field. I believe that she's a young star to watch over the next decade."
Schlegel will enter the UA this fall as a biochemistry major, and she plans to continue working in Gang's lab.
Her research focuses on understanding the genes and enzymes involved in producing a compound, Salvinorin A, which is found in a species of sage. When ingested, Salvinorin A also binds to receptors in the human brain, and it has already been shown to reduce the severity of mental illness symptoms such as delusions and hallucinations.
"I'm looking at identifying the full sequences of the enzymes involved so we can understand how they work and on what compounds they work," Schlegel explains. That understanding could help to lay the groundwork for designing other compounds – and new medications – that also help to treat various mental illnesses.
Schlegel came to work in Gang's lab as a student in THMS's Honors Research Methods Course, taught by Arizona's 2008 Bioscience Educator of the Year Margaret Wilch, who also has worked with BIO5 to develop a high-school biotechnology curriculum for Arizona school districts. Each student in Wilch's class selects a different independent science research project on which to focus.
Another student of Wilch's, Adrian Laurenzi, currently a sophomore at the University of Washington, was the original catalyst for the project and had worked in Gang's lab the year before. Schlegel continued and built upon Laurenzi's research.
"It's one of the best classes I've had," Schlegel said. "Ms. Wilch takes a personal interest in everyone's research. She's one of the big reasons that I succeeded in the lab."
"Angela is smart, hardworking and dedicated," Wilch said. "When she completes a job, she does so thoroughly." Wilch also praises Schlegel's enthusiasm for the scientific process, her willingness to help her classmates and most of all, her patience and perseverance. "As is typical of research, not everything has always gone smoothly, but Angela has taken every turn in stride," Wilch said. "She never complains or expresses frustration."
Schlegel's passion for science dates back to her childhood, when her entomologist grandfather regularly took her to visit parks and canyons. A THMS summer research project in the Chiricahua Mountains further sparked her interest in research. "I like how there's always something new to discover," she said. "You can look at unknowns and find something new."
Schlegel says she's enjoyed the chance to gain hands-on research skills in the Gang lab, and that she also appreciates the supportive and collaborative environment she's found there. "I like the idea that I'm doing real research that could get published," she said, adding that she's gained confidence as a researcher during her time in the lab. "I've gained the knowledge and capacity to find things on my own and think for myself."
She advises would-be young researchers to be persistent. "Don't give up," Schlegel said. "It's daunting at first, because there's so much you need to know, but you just keep working at it and taking it one little step at a time and eventually you really get it."