Clara de Castro, 17, has made a significant scientific discovery in a University of Kentucky lab.
A junior at Sayre School, de Castro has been working in Robin Cooper's UK lab, mostly on evenings and weekends, dissecting fruit flies.
Through her work, she has developed a technique that enables researchers to study the effects that drugs have on the hearts of Drosophila, the genus of small flies often called fruit flies.
When de Castro started working in the lab as a freshman, the graduate students were trying to study the fruit flies' hearts. They found, though, that they couldn't conduct long-term studies because the heart of the fruit fly would stop beating after about 20 minutes.
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"I looked at the different aspects of the saline that would cause the heart to slow down and stop," de Castro said. Eventually, she came up with a technique and a saline solution that kept the heart beating for hours.
"I am providing a stable medium so that researchers who are more talented than me, or who know more than me, can do the really important stuff, the cardiac physiology, pharmacology and genetics."
It took de Castro one whole summer to do the fruit fly dissections well.
"Fruit flies are really tiny," she said. "What I do is the larvae, so they're the width of your thumbnail."
Now, de Castro can pin down the flies, open them up and expose the heart, without damaging it, in eight minutes.
De Castro's love for science started in sixth-grade anatomy, where the class dissected a lot of animals.
"I know in middle school it was sorta cool for the girls to be like, 'Eww, gross, the heart.' I was in there with my scalpel and my scissors, and I was going at it," she said. "I just loved it."
De Castro found out about Cooper's lab through her brother Leo, who volunteered there.
Cooper said what makes Clara de Castro different from many of the high school students he has worked with over the past 18 years is that she works on weekends and evenings. Most students get time off school to come in the afternoons.
De Castro does not get paid or earn class credit. All her work is on a volunteer basis.
She described Cooper as the best teacher she has ever had.
"No matter how simple the question is, he will sit with you and explain it to an excruciating detail," she said. "Every time I present, he's there front row, nodding his head, making sure I'm OK up there."
Cooper's top words to describe de Castro: independent and motivated.
"Fabulous?" de Castro suggested jokingly.
"I like it," Cooper said, laughing.
This summer, de Castro will be going to Poland with her mother and brother to present her technique at the International Congress of Comparative Physiology and Biochemistry, which occurs every four years.
She still has more than a year left in high school, but she's already thinking about college. Leo is a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is urging her to go to MIT or Harvard.
"She'll be happy wherever she goes," Leo said. "I'm not worried about her."
Columbia University and University of California, Berkeley, are also on her list.
"And of course UK," she said.