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TSI: Teen Science Investigations: on the Case, with Winners of the 2009 Intel ISEF Addiction Science Awards

The New York Times, Feb. 8, 2010

Do human corpses found intact in the desert hold clues about the dangers of methamphetamine abuse? Can the residue from burning tobacco cause genetic mutations in flies? These questions led three 17-year-olds to create award-winning science research projects.

With their curiosity sparked by some unusual facts they came across, Daniel Martin, Jada Dalley, and Sehar Salman became detectives on the trails of mysteries. They searched for answers using the scientific method, and their resulting research projects earned all of them a 2009 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) Addiction Science Award. Read on to learn about their remarkable teen science investigations.

* Mystery: Daniel already knew that methamphetamine, a powerfully addictive stimulant drug, is highly toxic to the brain and body of a drug abuser. But a conversation with his mother made Daniel curious about whether the drug's effects on the body last even after death. His mother, who works with the medical examiner's office identifying bodies and determining causes of death, told Daniel that sometimes bodies remain in the deserts around Phoenix for a period of time before being discovered. Carnivorous animals searching for food often scavenge the remains. But, she added, if a person abused methamphetamine, scavenging animals stay away from the body. Daniel decided to investigate. He came up with a testable hypothesis to see if what his mother said was true. He hypothesized that as the level of methamphetamine in a deceased person's body increased, the amount of the body eaten by carnivorous scavengers would decrease.

* Evidence Trail: To test his hypothesis, Daniel scoured 97 case records in the medical examiner's office that included toxicology results of how much (if any) methamphetamine was in the body when it was discovered. He studied forensic photographs taken of the bodies and calculated the amount of scavenging on each body. To rule out the effect of other factors, Daniel also tracked other data on the deceased person, such as age, weight, and gender.

* Drawing a Conclusion: Daniel's data supported his hypothesis. It showed that there was an association between the amount of methamphetamine identified in the toxicology report and the amount of scavenging on a body--the more methamphetamine detected, the less the scavenging.

"Even just a little bit of methamphetamine in the body meant that there was a massive reduction in carnivore scavenging," he says. "I was surprised by how extreme the results were."

Daniel says the findings of his project highlight how dangerous a drug like methamphetamine must be if its effects can be seen even after death.

"Even animals know that this is a poison to your body," he says.

Project's full title: "The Effect of Human Methamphetamine Usage on Carnivore Scavenging"