Science Exchange Stories: Hannah Margolis, High School Scientist

May 29, 2014 | Posted by Tess Mayall in Scientist Spotlight |
Hannah Margolis prepping yeast cells for her project at Elko High School.

Hannah Margolis prepping yeast cells for her project at Elko High School.

Recently I interviewed an extremely unique Science Exchange user, Hannah Margolis. Hannah is a high school student studying the effect of stress on Sirtuin 2 proteins, which play a role in aging. Hannah won first place at the Elko County Science Fair and competed at Intel International’s National Science and Engineering Fair!

When I talked to Hannah, I was absolutely awestruck by her intelligence, initiative, and passion for knowledge. Check out how she approached this research problem below.

Q: How did you get the idea to look into the effect of stress?

Hannah: Last year I did a physics project, which involved blowing stuff up with alpha particles. When that was over I was looking into cosmic rays, but I found out you can’t do anything cool with cosmic rays. However, while I was looking into it I learned that people who are exposed to more cosmic rays are reported to live longer. That led to this idea called radiation hormesis – the idea that low amounts of radiation are good for you. I thought that was really weird.

I kept looking into it, and I found that any type of stress is supposed to reduce your chance of getting cancer and getting sick. It sounds great, but nobody uses it because we don’t know how it works. It’s a little bit scary to tell people to go subject themselves to low amounts of radiation – people wouldn’t do that. I wanted to try to figure out why it works, so we can someday implement it in society, because it’s a great proactive treatment.

Q: How did you learn about Sirtuins and their role in aging?

Hannah: While I was learning about the effect of stress, I was looking into a lot of bio stuff and talking to some people at Harvard that are looking at aging as a disease. The main idea behind their work is that you can live and be healthy until you die, so you don’t necessarily have a forever life, but you have a full life.

They were working with a group of proteins called Sirtuins, which are a new thing in aging and cancer research. They are a group of proteins that package the DNA.

The idea is that low amounts of stress are triggering repair mechanisms in your body. The stress is so low that it’s not actually damaging cells, it’s just triggering proteins to turn on and work even though they don’t have to be. So they pick up on damage that they normally wouldn’t fix until much later when it actually becomes a problem.

I was thinking maybe what it was doing was increasing the number of Sirtuin proteins in the body. There are other mechanisms obviously, but I thought this might be one.

Q: How did you test your hypothesis?

Hannah: I worked with baker’s yeast, which has Sirtuin 2 in it.

I wanted to try a few different types of stress. But the first problem I had was that not all stress is good for you. There’s a range that is good. You can play with two things, the amount of stress or the length of time it’s given.

Normally hormesis is low amounts of stress over a longer period. You can’t have sudden harsh doses, because the body will freak out. So I needed to figure out what that range was. I used a spectrophotometer and I cultured the yeast in a liquid YPD media.

There were three types of stress I tested. I did an acetic acid bath that had the same pH as acid rain, I did a calorie restriction with 30% less dextrose, and I had a carbon dioxide stress where I let some dry ice absorb into the media. I also had a control group.

First I cultured them and ran them through the spectrophotometer every 24 hours. Everything went wrong, I had to fix the spectrophotometer, I had to fix everything.

Then I took the samples home for a weekend and ran a test every two hours looking at the concentration. They were all growing at the same rate, but I knew the stress was beneficial because at 48 hours the control was growing really nicely and everything else was forming inverted u-shapes. I figured out that after ~20 hours the growth was leveling out then it was going back down, so I figured out the ideal time to impose the stress. Then finally I used Alamo labs to do western blots and look at the protein concentration when they’re stressed.

Before Alamo Labs, I had the results, I just couldn’t see them.

Q: Where do you see your future?

Hannah: There’s a good chance that I’ll be doing science, until this year I wasn’t sure. I’ve got a copy of this molecular biology book The Cell, it’s all shiny and beautiful and I’ve been reading it cover to cover. It’s just something I enjoy, so it’s definitely a possibility. I’ve been doing so much science lately.

I really like animals too; I’ve always wanted to be an animal rights lawyer. Maybe I can do a couple different things.

Q: How long did the project take in total?

Hannah: It was only a couple of weeks. But the evolution from my cosmic ray project took about 6 months.

Q: Do you have any advice for other students thinking about competing in the high school science fair?

Hannah: They should, because it allows you to look into whatever you want. Whatever you are curious about, you can explore. I have a strong belief that there’s no useless knowledge in this world. And it bothers me when people say that they have to go to school, you get to, you’re really lucky.

In school, sometimes you feel bored or like you aren’t learning enough, for the science fair projects it’s totally up to you. You get to manage yourself and explore as much as you want. You get to find out something that nobody else knows, which is really cool.

You could spend a couple lifetimes figuring out all the things that go into a cell’s workings.

Q: How was your experience using Science Exchange?

Hannah: As a high school student researcher, one of the biggest and most daunting challenges is trying to find professional yet affordable tests that may personally be difficult to handle without access to a lab. Science Exchange was phenomenal in helping me find student friendly labs that were really dedicated and understanding to getting a difficult test under control in an extreme time crunch. Just before coming to you guys, I was really let down by a university I worked with that suddenly shut me out without explanation. It was great to know there was still a place I could trust. Research as a student is scary and it is good to have reliable guiding beacon to keep you from blindly stumbling through the dark in hopes things will work out.

About the author

Tess Mayall builds Science Exchange’s online and offline community of scientists and providers. She is a geologist by training, but considers herself a friend of scientists near and far.

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