We walk through the halls of the school, pushing and shoving through walls and walls of freshmen. The word is often spoken with a hint of disgust from haughty upperclassmen. The title of "freshman" is now synonymous with uncontrolled, lazy, childish.
But how many freshmen conduct research on the effects of neurotoxins on planarian regeneration in their garage?
Most students don't even know what half of those words mean, yet 14 year old Alyah Kanemoto speaks them with utter ease as she sets down her copy of Watership Down, the required reading for the Freshman Honors English class.
"I performed all of my stuff in my garage," Alyah says with a humble smile upon her face.
Ever since she walked into her fourth grade science classroom at Paularino Elementary, Alyah has developed a passion for science that is unusual among the average student.
"I was really intrigued by the animal cell and I was the only kid that got the answer right, and I got really excited," Alyah recounts with a smile on her face. "I was about 10 years old."
Supported by her parents, Alyah spends hours in her garage exposing tapeworms to neurotoxins, cutting off their heads, waiting for the heads to grow back, and testing their new eye receptors and their phototaxis responses, which indicates whether or not their eyes work correctly.
"A neurotoxin is a chemical that affects the neurosystem, and a planarian is a flatworm. If you cut its head off, it'll regenerate, and I'm focusing on the eye receptors," Alyah explains.
Working with live animals is a far cry from the majority of science fair projects done by students, and Alyah's passion for science has rewarded her with two first place awards in middle school, and an award from the American Association of Clinical Chemistry in seventh grade.
"Observation takes about 5 to 6 hours after school. It can even go to 2 or 3, even 4. Maybe 5 if they weren't cooperating. Working with live animals is not very easy, but you eventually get to it."
Alyah did the planarian experiment in eighth grade as well, but she didn't do as well as she hoped to.
"It was my first time in a new category, and so many things went on in my experiment, so many variables. Variables and trying to take observations in a certain period of time, because planarians have this certain period of time where they have this whole regeneration time, so if you don't get that time, it kind of screws it up and it's inconsistent."
Despite any shortcomings, her passion for science has always fueled Alyah to keep pushing ahead, and having a family who wholeheartedly supports her helps as well.
"My mom, she's into the science stuff too, so she's encouraging, and my dad helps me with my projects and putting them together, because he's into art," Alyah adds. "I've always had that passion for [science], since I was about 6 years old I've always liked the whole science thing. It's just been something I've always grown up with because my family likes science."
The support continues as the freshman frantically prepares for the Orange County science fair, which is happening on March 18th at the OC Fairgrounds. This competition includes the best of the best science fair projects from across the county. It requires an oral presentation as well as a visual display.
"Mentally, you have to prepare for it because there are so many nerves going on and you don't want to mess up in front of the judges," Alyah responds. "If you say something wrong and it sounds weird, then they'll probably take off points."
When asked about her plans for the future, Alyah's eyes suddenly light up.
"I'm hoping that I will be able to go to medical school and be a pediatrician... I really want to specify in neurology, because that's what I'm doing right now, and stem cell research, which I really enjoy," she responds confidently. "I love kids, and it's biology. It all fits together. I'm hoping to go to UCLA and transfer to medical school."
In addition to science fair, Alyah sings for the Vocal Ensemble, and is a member of DELTA and MESA. She also began a Medical Club earlier this year.
"The beginning of this year, I started a Medical Club with Mrs. Kelly, and since I was new to high school and it was really weird, I was trying to adjust, it wasn't a full on club," Alyah says. "I'm hoping this semester to really put it out there and have people join."
It's a miracle this freshman has any free time at all, or finds time to do all of the things she does, but Alyah doesn't seem to mind at all.
"I have to manage my time, but sometimes I have to focus on a lot of stuff. I try to make it balance, but sometimes it doesn't always work out," Alyah responds with a slight smile.
"It's a lot, but I think I'll be able to do it!"
Written by Loralee Sepsey