Polygence blog / Student Spotlights

High School Research Student Kevin Explores the Scientific Literature on the Human Microbiome in Food Allergies

8 minute read

Kevin is a rising senior from Phoenix, AZ who worked with our amazing mentor Niokhor to study the role the human microbiota plays in allergies. Kevin was inspired by his interest in his parent’s restaurant business as well as his passion for biology and chemistry to examine scientific research on a topic which deeply affects all of the food industry. Throughout his sessions with Niokhor, Kevin learned not only to comprehend complex scientific literature, but to present this information in a clear and concise manner, and synthesize what he has learned into a literature review paper. You can read more about Kevin’s growth throughout his Polygence experience in the interview below.

Did you have experience with scientific research before Polygence?

I liked reading articles about science for general audiences which use simple vocabulary, but before my project, I hadn’t read much scholarly research. I wanted to learn both how to understand this high level research, and then how to actually present what I was reading about. In the beginning, it was pretty difficult to make that jump, but it got easier with each session I had. My mentor Niokhor gave me lots of tips about how to present research, and also showed me many examples of what to do through his own presentations.

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What was the most challenging part about learning to read scientific papers, and how did you make that transition?

I think the vocabulary was the biggest challenge at first. The papers were filled with a lot of words which you wouldn’t know if you weren’t an expert in that area of biology—words for a whole bunch of different proteins, enzymes, parts of the DNA, etc. The authors won’t necessarily explain what these terms are, so you have to have a baseline knowledge in order to be able to read it. Niokhor helped me figure out what these words mean by answering my questions. If I had a question about a specific acid that a bacteria produces, Niokhor would explain what it is and what it does for our body.

Before you started Polygence, what were you interested in studying?

I was interested in biology and chemistry beforehand, but I was thinking I would get a degree in business, like an MBA, so that I could run my own business. My parents run a restaurant, so I wanted to follow in their footsteps and run a business on my own. My project was originally going to be about food allergies, which is really important to know when running a restaurant, because you don’t want to accidentally harm someone with allergies. I got this idea from a documentary I watched about the rising food allergy cases in America. In the video, they interviewed different chefs and restaurant owners talking about how food allergies affect their business and their lives. They can’t afford to be sued because someone had a reaction to their food. If this happens, it won’t be good for the business or for the person affected by the allergy.

So I figured if I go into the restaurant business, it’ll be really important for me to get to know more about food allergies. Then, because of Niokhor’s expertise, I became really interested in the microbiome, and how the different bacteria in our gut help prevent us from having allergic reactions to food.

Can you give an example of something interesting you’ve learned about allergies from reading the scientific literature?

One of the papers I was studying found that mice who were raised in a germ-free environment are shown to have more chronic conditions such as allergies, while mice raised with exposure to more bacteria, viruses, dirt, etc. were shown to have less of these allergies. That’s why it's actually important for young children to be exposed to allergens like peanuts or dogs. It can help them not develop these allergies. It’s not the only factor, but it helps in some cases.

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Can you tell us about how your sessions were structured when you were working on your project?

Niokhor would give me research papers to get me started, and then in the meetings, I would give a presentation about what I learned using slides I made. Then, Niokhor would go through the slides and give me corrections and feedback on how I formatted them and how I presented them. If I didn’t put a title on one of the slides, he’d help me figure out a title, or if I had a picture that I didn’t explain, he’d help me come up with ways to explain it next time.

What’s something you hope your readers take away from reading your review paper?

It’s really important to know that you are not alone. You are never alone. There’s always billions and trillions of microbes on you at all times. They’re living on your body, using it as a home and as a food source. So it's important to take care of not only yourself, but also these creatures, because these creatures protect you from diseases and make you healthier. Take care of these tiny friends living on your body.

How is Niokhor different from other teachers or tutors you’ve had in the past?

Conventional teachers I’ve had give you one exact way to do things, one way to study and one way to do your homework. But Niokhor wasn’t restrictive like that—he would just let me do my slides the way I wanted. He told me in the beginning that this project is both him helping me and me helping him. He’s not here to teach me anything or tell me what to do. Instead, he gives me the space I need to do the project on my own with his help, and he doesn’t give me a whole set of rules that limit what I can do.

When you give a presentation in school, you have to give it to the whole class and captivate the whole class. For the presentations I gave to Niokhor, I could keep it to the basics, just words and some pictures. When you’re presenting for a teacher or professor, you have to worry about using different color and design schemes and all this to make the presentation seem captivating and interesting, to grab people’s attention. But with my presentations for Niokhor, I could just keep it plain, white background with black letters. In research papers, they go straight to the point, with a whole bunch of examples and experiments about why and how this happened. I like that I can do that in my presentations—get straight to the point.

What are some of the most important skills you developed doing Polygence?

I learned how to read and understand a research paper, and how to prepare and deliver a good presentation. Niokhor helped me with all of these things. I think learning to present in general was the most important skill I developed. I hear that public speaking is many people’s greatest fear, and I was definitely like that before. But Polygence really helped me step up to the plate and understand how to be a good presenter and the great value in this.

What advice would you give to a student about to start their Polygence program?

The time management aspect might seem really difficult for a person starting out. If you start your project like I did during the school year, managing your time for school, for Polygence, for afterschool activities, and for work if you have that can be a lot. You have to properly schedule everything, so that you know what to do and when so that you can complete everything.

But the great thing about Polygence is that my mentor gives me the time I need to complete these things. If I needed more time, like if I needed an extra week to finish my presentation, Niokhor would give me that. He also knows what it’s like to not have a lot of time to complete stuff, because he’s also managing his time for Polygence and his own work and research. So I think it’s important to learn how to manage time.

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