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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Freshman takes experimental view
His science work could win a Discovery Channel contest.
By LISA BUIE, Times Staff Writer
Published September 30, 2007
USF graduate student Tina Fiorelli, left, Josh Hammer, 14, and Dr. Alison E. Willing look over Josh's lab book and procedure manual before he works on his project.
[Ken Helle | Times]
[Ken Helle | Times]
Josh Hammer, 14, poses with his original project, "The Affect of Magnetism on CD4+T Helper Cells," at the Center for Aging and Brain Repair, on the University of South Florida campus.
Early on, Cindy Hammer knew her son was different.
While other preschoolers watched cartoons, 3-year-old Josh was mesmerized by the Discovery Channel.
When kindergartener Josh had a volcano-themed birthday party at the Museum of Science and Industry, the hostess asked him what volcanoes do.
"Blow up," was the reply she expected.
Instead, she got a lecture on tectonic plates, pressure and lava flow.
By second grade, the experiments started.
The first involved trying to determine the difference between water, eggs and vinegar.
"There were a lot of interesting smells," said Josh, who eventually graduated to projects involving the effect of magnetism on frogs that "stunk up" his bedroom.
The frogs exposed to the magnets were slower and got fatter, even though the control group ate all the time.
So it's no surprise to close friends and family that the Zephyrhills High School freshman is in the running to be named America's Top Young Scientist of the Year.
The competition, sponsored by the Discovery Channel, began with a field of 75,000 middle school students that got whittled to 40 finalists. At the time he entered, Josh attended Centennial Middle School and learned science for three years from Laraine Stovall, a former International Baccalaureate high school science teacher.
"He's one of the few (middle schoolers) who use their abilities to work on a project as well as he could possibly do it," she said. "I knew he was capable of being able to do this."
From Oct. 21-24, the finalists will visit Washington, D.C. and take part in a series of team-based scientific challenges focused on this year's environmental theme, "Operation Green." The students will compete for more than $100,000 worth of scholarships and special prizes. The top prize is a $20,000 scholarship. Contestants also will have to present their individual experiments.
The contest is an attempt to recognize middle school scientists, who do not get the opportunity to progress to national science fairs like their high school counterparts.
The project that won the 14-year-old awards at the local and state levels, and that he is using as his entry, was an experiment to determine the effect of magnetism on certain T-cells.
T-cells are part of the immune system. When activated, they divide quickly and secrete proteins that help the immune response.
These cells are a target of HIV infection; the virus infects the cell by using a protein to get inside. The loss of T-cells leads to symptoms of AIDS.
Unlike frogs, T-cells aren't something a scientist can keep in his bedroom. So Josh got Alison Willing, an associate professor of neuroscience at the University of South Florida, to be his mentor. Each week he traveled to USF and worked with her on his experiment.
"I do have input, but it's his project, and I want him to do as much as he can," Willing said. "But I can make sure he doesn't fall off the edge of the cliff."
The process was painstaking, and everything had to be executed precisely to insure accurate results. Josh learned a few lessons about the importance of proper procedure when he forgot to turn on the carbon dioxide, which is required for the cells to live. He had to redo that part. One time, he let the cells sit too long before examining the results. He started over and reduced the wait time.
In the end, the findings surprised him. The T-cells exposed to south magnetic field did indeed have the highest number of T-cells, as he hypothesized. However, the cells exposed to a north field also increased,although the control group still had more.
He concluded that magnetism, no matter what type, increases the number of T-cells.
"So hypothetically, with an increase of...cells, and the correct medication to complement the magnets' effects, you may increase the number of cells that can fight against HIV," Josh wrote in his essay. "It will take research with other proteins and then live subjects to determine the true result."
Josh has now expanded his experiment. His mother still drives him to USF, where he works with Willing.
Willing said she has mentored many students, but Josh is her first middle schooler.
"Usually you don't see students until their sophomore or junior year in high school," she said. "He's very inquisitive and incredibly motivated."
But despite his devotion to the serious topic of microbiology, he's still a typical teen. On a recent day at USF, he tells a lab assistant how he wishes he could use one of two machines that's faster to shake his samples because "it's fun." When Cindy offers to bring back lunch, he orders a Big Mac, no cheese. Oh, and an apple pie.
Anyone who thinks he's a nerd who spends all his time holed up in a lab is mistaken. A self-described "band geek," he plays trombone and drums. But he's also a jock who plays soccer and runs track at school. His girlfriend is a junior varsity cheerleader.
And the house of Cindy and Donald Hammer is usually teeming with teenagers.
"We call it the party house," she said.
Josh hopes someday to become a doctor who does research. He wants to help cure diseases. He also wants to get this pilot's license.
"I flew a Cessna once," he said.
Lisa Buie can be reached at (813) 909-4604 or toll free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4604. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
On the Web
For information about the Discovery Channel's Young Scientist Challenge, visit their Science Fair central.
The experiment: A possible cure for AIDS?
The goal: To determine whether exposure to magnetic fields affects the body's ability to fight HIV by increasing the number of T-cells, part of the immune system.
The hypothesis: Different magnetic fields affect T-cells differently. South fields will increase the number of T-cells, while north fields will have a "calming" effect and lower the number. Cells not exposed to magnetic fields will increase at the usual rate.
The process: Josh Hammer put thawed T-cells into three groups of Petri dishes. One group was exposed to a south field, the other to a north field. The third group was exposed only to the Earth's magnetic field. Josh monitored the cells for a week. He used dyes and a microscope to determine which cells were living, dead or still dividing. At the end of the week, he counted the number of T-cells in each dish.
The results: The dishes exposed to a south magnetic field had the highest number of T-cells. But dishes exposed to a north field also had more cells, though less than what was in the control group.
The conclusion: No matter what, magnetism affects the number of T-cells. So hypothetically, with an increase in the number of such cells, and the correct medicine, someone may be able to increase the number of cells that can fight HIV. Josh acknowledged in his contest essay that "it will take research with other proteins and tests on live subjects to determine the true result."