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A surgeon-general in the making? Hopkins junior wins $35,000 scholarship for research on teen smoking

Hannah Borowsky
Hannah Borowsky

College just became less expensive for Hannah Borowsky, a junior at Hopkins High School in Minnetonka, and for her parents.

Hannah, 17, won the $35,000 scholarship in the Young Epidemiology Scholars (YES) competition for her research on teen smoking.

And she has a paid lab internship — not the slave-labor internships so many college students face these days — lined up this summer in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Experimental and Clinical Pharmacology.

Hannah’s ahead of schedule. College recruiters, take note: She hasn’t picked a college yet. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the College Board, sponsors of the YES competition, certainly are impressed with her potential.

Hannah was among 60 regional finalists to present research over the weekend to a panel of public health experts in Washington, D.C. She placed second after a 12-minute PowerPoint presentation, an intense 10-minute Q&A session with judges, and submission of her 30-page analysis in February. The top-six placers won scholarships ranging from $20,000 to $50,000, six other finalists took home $15,000 scholarships, and the remaining 48 finalists received $2,000 each. More than 600 high-school students entered the competition.

‘Really interesting questions’ from judges
The Q&A was “a little bit nerve-wracking,” Hannah said Monday after flying home from D.C. “But it ended up being fun because the judges were these super-amazing epidemiologists … and they had really interesting questions to ask.”

What kinds of questions?

“They press you to think about the implications of your results. They’d say, ‘You have great results but what does that mean for public health and how will you use it?’ ”

Hannah heard about the YES competition last October and started thinking about a research topic. This would not be a school assignment or project; she would have to work on her own time and learn computer analysis techniques.

“The cancer risks are so well known yet so many adolescents smoke,” she said. “They’re risking their lives for a cigarette, and I wanted to get inside their heads and see what they were thinking. … I couldn’t believe anyone would smoke because it’s so risky.”

Hannah thinks her findings could be useful in deterring adolescents from smoking by targeting different groups.

“My study found that smokers who reported receiving information about drugs and alcohol from their friends perceived a higher risk of smoking,” she said. “I also found different groups of smokers who think smoking is less of a risk,” in particular younger teens, males, African-Americans and those having a lower GPA.

Just as peer pressure can lead adolescents to risky behavior, it also may prevent them from engaging in it. And they’re more likely to listen to their peers than their parents about the risks of smoking.

Science, medicine, politics? 
For as long as Hannah can remember, she has been interested in science. Her parents, Iris and Steve Borowsky, are physicians. She has been a winner in the statewide science fair. Medicine and biochemistry are appealing, but she’s also keen on politics and writing. She says writing that 30-page paper was fun. And now her interests are expanding to public health.

“I really like the idea of public health as a way to affect a lot of people and to mix politics with science and public service,” she said.

Perhaps a future surgeon-general may hail from Minnesota someday. This likely would suit the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which established the YES competition in 2003.

“With the nation facing a potentially catastrophic shortage of public health professionals, it is critical that we cultivate the next generation of public health talent,” said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and CEO of the foundation, in a press release. “These students’ outstanding work demonstrates that the future of epidemiology holds great promise.”

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Michael golden on 04/27/2010 - 06:26 pm.

    Why people agreed to answer her survey? Iris Borowsky is a well known professor of youth risk behavior. She probably should be given the prize.

  2. Submitted by Raj Maddali on 04/27/2010 - 08:58 pm.

    “A surprising number of teenagers — nearly 15 percent — think they’re going to die young, leading many to drug use, suicide attempts and other unsafe behavior, new research suggests.

    The study, based on a survey of more than 20,000 kids, challenges conventional wisdom that says teens engage in risky behavior because they think they’re invulnerable to harm. Instead, a sizable number of teens may take chances “because they feel hopeless and figure that not much is at stake,” said study author Dr. Iris Borowsky, a researcher at the University of Minnesota.”

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/31596329/ns/health-behavior/

  3. Submitted by Patrick Coleman on 04/28/2010 - 08:59 am.

    To Michael G: As the tuition payer of last resort the award was made, in essence, to Dr. Iris Borowsky.

  4. Submitted by Michael golden on 04/28/2010 - 09:27 am.

    To Patrick: You are right but kids should be rewarded for their creativity and own work. I am sure may kids who entered the competition had their own ideas and collected their own data but could not compete with studies like this with thousands of subjects studied. The YES competition is highly prestigious and should be fair. Did the YES competition judges know about Dr. Iris Borowsky’s work? Casey Selix should have clarified the role of the student.
    Regardless of who did the work, the study seems to have deep implications as it touches on race, GPA etc. Casey Selix should follow up on that. It is quite interesting!

  5. Submitted by Joe Schweigert on 04/28/2010 - 10:35 am.

    Maybe I’m confused. A study confirming peer pressure exists wins the prize? It’s amazing how much people are always willing to dish out for anything to do with anti-smoking studies.

  6. Submitted by Casey Selix on 04/28/2010 - 11:32 am.

    Commenters have a good point. It honestly didn’t occur to me to ask about the level of parental involvement in Hannah Borowsky’s project. I also had not heard of her mother’s work until I read the comments.

    I am attempting to get a response from Dr. Iris Borowsky about some of these questions and concerns.

  7. Submitted by Casey Selix on 04/28/2010 - 03:01 pm.

    I have received some guidelines for the YES scholarship competition, which allows mentors and advisers but restricts their roles. The last paragraph, in particular, explains the systems in place to ensure the student’s work is original.

    “Mentors & Advisors”
    “A mentor or advisor may help you formulate an idea and act as a consultant and offer advice, but the actual work on the project—the study design and analysis of the data—must be carried out independently by the student competitor. You must be able to demonstrate how you have advanced the project independently, and Research Reports must clearly describe the extent of any involvement by mentors or advisors.”

    “A mentor or advisor should have a clear understanding of the YES Competition project guidelines. You, the student, are the researcher, and the project must reflect your own concept and content. Your mentor can help you evaluate your study design before you begin your research, aid you in figuring out how to get the data you need, and provide relevant feedback as you progress. Your mentor can also help you understand the application of epidemiological methods that you employ in your research, as well as assist you in thinking through future applications and directions for further research. You may also obtain help from others on tasks such as accessing data, learning how to do statistical analyses, or editing your report. However, in the end, what you produce must be your own question, thinking, analysis, and writing. In a nutshell, you must have complete ownership of your Research Report.

    “In addition, the College Board has systems in place to help ensure each student’s work is their own. This includes an intensive Q&A with a judging panel of distinguished epidemiologists designed to determine each student’s level of understanding of their work.”

  8. Submitted by Raj Maddali on 04/28/2010 - 03:14 pm.

    I don’t beleive there was a survey done by the Ms. Borowsky. What they do is use the data set provided by some institution like Michigan . Essentially it is interpretation of results using SAS or SPSS etc.

  9. Submitted by Casey Selix on 04/28/2010 - 10:22 pm.

    Here is Dr. Iris Borowsky’s email response to questions raised by commenters.

    “Thank you for alerting me to the comments in response to your story. The suggestion that this research project was not her own work is a disservice to Hannah, who had full ownership of the project from start to finish. I contributed to the project as an advisor, which Hannah fully acknowledged in her original application, paper, and recent presentations. I do adolescent health research (my field is not tobacco use). I suggested to Hannah that she work with Dr. Kari Kugler at the University of Minnesota, who was her mentor for this project.

    “Hannah used a large existing dataset to answer the research question she came up with – it is not my dataset. The YES competition suggests that students make use of these types of datasets if they would like to in their projects.

    “I hope this clarifies any confusion about the YES competition and Hannah’s project. It is simply unfair to diminish Hannah’s work by suggesting in any way that she did not compete fairly.”

    Iris Borowsky

  10. Submitted by Michael golden on 04/29/2010 - 08:26 am.

    How can she have ownership of the data that was existing? Who collected the data? Dr. Kugler seems to be a post-doctoral fellow in the same department!! The whole thing does not make sense.

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