High School Student Wins Recognition for Work with OHSU Professor


Portland, Ore. — "Jehan Yahya," says OHSU Assistant Professor Holly Simon, "is a phenomenal high school student--and she'll make a terrific scientist."

Apparently, there's nearly universal agreement on that subject. Following a research apprenticeship at OHSU with Dr. Simon last summer, Jehan presented the results of her work at the Beaverton-Hillsboro Science Fair, where she placed 2nd in the Microbiology category, and the Intel Northwest Science Expo, where she finished 3rd place in the "Best of Category" field, earned another award for "Outstanding Use of the International System of Units" from the U.S. Metric Association, and received a scholarship offer of up to $10,000 per year from Lewis & Clark College.

Jehan's research project was titled, "Functional Metagenomics on Microorganisms Associated With the Tropical Caterpillar Rothschildia lebeau." In the course of her work with Dr. Simon, Jehan performed assays to screen recombinant DNA libraries--constructed from the caterpillar gut microbial assemblage--for several different enzymatic activities. The source of the libraries was Rothschildia lebeau, a tropical caterpillar that in its adult phase becomes a strikingly patterned moth (see photos at right).

The environmental genomic, or "metagenomic," libraries that Jehan worked with were constructed previously in conjunction with a National Science Foundation Microbial Observatories grant awarded to Dr. Simon and her colleagues for the use of cultivation-independent techniques in investigations of the diversity and function of microorganisms associated with R. lebeau. For more information about the Microbial Observatory project (MOCAT) and caterpillars see the "Related Links" below.

Dr. Simon, assisted by Adam Bonin, a former postdoctoral researcher in her laboratory, supervised Jehan's work to successfully implement assays for, among others, the enzyme DNase (which breaks down foreign DNA) and Amylase (which breaks down starch). Jehan also attempted some assays for the enzymes Cellulase and Chitinase that were not successsful, but has continued her work by developing an idea to test for enzymes that break down phenolics--a diverse group of aromatic compounds, perhaps the most well-known of which are tannins (found in tea and wine, and also known to occur in host food plants of R. lebeau). "Jehan is excited by the experiments that work," Dr. Simon points out, "but not discouraged by those that do not. She thinks her way through or around the problems to the next experiment - she has found her calling."

Jehan was first matched with OHSU's faculty members through her participation in Apprenticeships for Science and Engineering (ASE), a Saturday Academy program that pairs high school students with scientists and engineers in eight week summer apprenticeships. In addition to Dr. Simon, a number of OHSU faculty members--including Matthew Sachs and Paul Tratnyek, among others--have mentored past ASE students. Dr. Sachs was instrumental not only in pairing Jehan, who was interested in lab work, with Dr. Simon, but also in giving her some advice on her poster. Other OHSU  staff members, like EBS Department Systems Administrator Jim Mohan--who stayed late to help Jehan print her poster--also regularly pitch in to make the apprenticeships a great experience for students.

"I couldn't have done this without Dr. Simon," Jehan said, "and I see the awards I received partly as an accomplishment for her, since she had to put up with me!" Dr. Simon demurs on the topic, saying that the apprenticeship was a "real pleasure" and that she is delighted with Jehan's achievements.

Currently in the final months of her senior year at Beaverton's Southridge High School, Jehan is anxiously awaiting word about her acceptance to a number of colleges and universities where she has applied. Whether she ends up using her scholarship at Lewis & Clark or not, she plans to pursue a degree in biology and is already contemplating life after college as a biochemist, microbiologist, marine biologist or astrobiologist.

"Wherever she ends up," says Dr. Simon, "she'll be a success; she's bright, hard-working, and very curious--all of the things you look for in a good scientist."