Meet Isabella (Izzy) Heffernan, a member of the class of 2021, who is currently celebrating a science fair win. As well as being involved with Bay View’s creative writing club, Izzy shines in STEM classes. We stopped to chat recently, and I asked her some questions for The Blue and Gold.
Can you tell us about your project?
For the past five years, I’ve been studying peanut allergies with the hopes of finding a cure. This year, I found that this chemical called butyrate can actually prevent an allergic reaction to peanuts in patient T-cells. This is especially promising because butyrate is actually commercially available, and you can go to CVS and Walgreens and buy a bunch of butyrate for only ten dollars. This brings a lot of hope for a potential peanut allergy cure in the future.
This year I also focused on a better diagnosis for peanut allergies. Current peanut allergy tests have a 60% false positivity rate, meaning that when you get diagnosed with a peanut allergy, there’s a 60% chance that you actually don’t have an allergy. (But if you have been diagnosed, please still take precautions). New research by others have suggested that certain diagnostic tests for peanut allergies in young children might actually be causing them to develop peanut allergies. So, I designed a test that would be a simple blood test to determine if a patient is allergic to peanuts. It tests two factors in the cells, giving hope that it would be more accurate, and it wouldn’t lead to the development of allergies.
What led you to do your project on this topic?
I personally have a peanut allergy. Five years ago, I was driving home from swim practice when I heard a segment on NPR, stating that new research found that changes in the intestinal microbiome (essentially the bacteria you’re exposed to on a daily basis) could potentially cause or cure numerous diseases including Parkinson’s, Autism, obesity, and most surprisingly peanut allergies. From there, I was hooked and I knew I needed to pursue this.
Now this isn’t your first science fair, is it? How many have you participated in? How did they go?
I’ve been in every science fair since 8th grade, so this was my 5th state science fair, and I’ve won all five of them. In high school, when you win the State Science fair, you qualify for the International Science Fair (ISEF). My sophomore year, I won a third place category award in the International Fair.
How does it feel to be a woman in STEM? What would you tell younger girls who are interested in pursuing STEM?
I love STEM, and so much of that has been fostered by the female role models that I’ve had in STEM, from my mom to Dr. Nagler, the researcher from the NPR segment who inspired my project. And while sometimes it can feel intimidating, especially when you’re the only girl in the lab or the only girl presenting your project, it's so worth it and so rewarding.
To the younger girls who want to get involved in STEM, I have a few words of advice. First, don’t be afraid if you’re the only girl in the room. It can definitely be intimidating, but work to make your voice heard because it’s important.
I’d also encourage you to find what you love about STEM. Sometimes you’ll be lucky like me and find what you love on the first try. A lot of times, it takes many tries, which can be discouraging at first. But when you find the thing you love, it’s so worth it. Don’t worry about being good at something right away, because you can always get better, but falling in love with what you do won’t change.
Finally, know that every experiment you perform and every hypothesis you write has the ability to change the world. (This will definitely help when you’re in the lab late at night or just ruined a week’s worth of experiments, like I’ve done a few too many times).