Anyone who has ever taken a course in biology or left produce out on the counter for a little too long will recognize the noble fruit fly. Easy to breed, feed and observe, they are the subject of choice for many hoping to study a broad range of scientific inquiries. After hearing her parents debate the benefits of organic over conventionally-raised foods, Texas student Ria Chhabra decided to use the insect to investigate their argument. The 16-year-old looked at the rates of stress, fertility and longevity of the flies and noticed that all fared better on the organic potatoes and bananas that they were fed. She has since published her results, been named as a finalist in the 2011 Broadcom Masters national scientific challenge, and partnered with a research laboratory at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Between juggling swim meets, a sweet 16 party, and the everyday rigors of school, Chhabra still has time to work towards understanding some of the most intriguing questions facing modern agriculture. Her first middle school science fair experiment dealt with looking at the vitamin C content in organic and supermarket produce. After discovering that organic produce contained more of the vitamin, she decided to take her research further and establish the effects of eating organic on overall health. She began working with Johannes Bauer, an associate professor at SMU in Dallas. Bauer normally only works with graduate students, but he noted that “the seriousness with which she approached this was just stunning.” Chhabra worked with Bauer and Santharam Kolli, eventually publishing their findings when she was only 14.
Currently a sophomore, Chhabra continues her study of fruit flies, using them as a model to investigate type 2 diabetes. She hopes to see whether or not alternative remedies, such as cinnamon and tumeric, can help alleviate the ailment. Her work has raised a number of questions in the field, ones that have other scientists wondering whether organically cultivated plants create more compounds beneficial to those that consume them. In the meantime, Chhabra is on the hunt for colleges and has her sights set on either Brown or MIT. Regardless of where she chooses to attend, she is sure to create quite the buzz.
Images via Ria Chhabra and Wikicommons user Jack Dykinga.