News | July 23, 2015


8th-grader wins awards for work done with FGCU

3 - minute read

There aren’t many eighth-graders who have conducted research in a university laboratory. And there are fewer still whose research subsequently wins both regional and state awards for excellence.

But Caylee Hill can claim all three distinctions. The Murdock Middle School student’s project won her the Best of Fair Junior Division Award at the 58th Thomas Alva Edison Regional Science and Inventors Fair last spring and then went on to win the best of fair award at the state Science and Engineering Fair in Lakeland in April. The 14-year-old Port Charlotte girl isolated and extracted the anti-cancer drug, vincristine, from periwinkle leaves, then created a poster detailing the process she used and the results.

Caylee had help from FGCU Assistant Professor Gregory Boyce and rising senior Jessica Yazarians, a biochemistry major, in conducting the experiment to determine how the amount of vincristine in local periwinkles compared to that found in species in other countries.

The project began with a family shopping trip to Goodwill, where Caylee found a book that explored plants and medicine, including vincristine, which is used to treat non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and some types of leukemia.

“It talked about how to use it to make teas,” Caylee says. “I decided to extract those alkaloids. My dad and I sent out emails to several universities looking for help.”

Although Boyce already puts in extra hours working with his organic chemistry college students in the lab, he decided to take on the project.

“Community outreach is something FGCU likes,” says Boyce. “And it overlapped with what I do already.”

When Caylee found out what was involved in the research, “I didn’t want to do it because it was really complicated,” she says. “I only knew a little about chemistry. But once I started doing it, I loved it. It was awesome.”

The project involved picking thousands of periwinkle leaves – which she and her dad, Jim Hill, did — then bringing them to the lab and crushing them, isolating the vincristine from the other elements and measuring how much they had extracted, which turned out to be just a minute amount derived from two very large bags of leaves. The process required using multiple pieces of lab equipment and about a month of after-school sessions in the lab.

“I’m glad we did it,” says Boyce. ”Seeing how much of an impact it made on Caylee even without the awards was very gratifying.”

Yazarians, who worked as a sales manager in a jewelry store and as a personal banker for several years before enrolling at FGCU to study her first love, science, was equally happy about taking part in the project.

“I liked the idea of teaching and, at the same time, I was learning while I was doing it,” she says. “I am so proud of Caylee. And the experience made me realize just how important it is to inspire young people. A lot of people are intimidated by science, math and engineering so it’s important to show them it may be challenging, but it’s not impossible. The more literate we are in STEM fields, the better our world will be.”

She may already have her first recruit.

“Because of them I am thinking of making a career in chemistry,” Caylee says.

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