Meet 18-year-old Petra Grutzik, whose award-winning research with UCLA neuroscientists is just the beginning.
Grutzik is from Manhattan Beach, Calif., and recently was recognized at the 2014 intel International Science and Engineering Fair for her research on a protein called FOXP2 and its link to speech disorders.
FOXP2 is found in both human brains and songbird brains. Songbirds learn to sing through social interaction the way humans learn to talk, and FOXP2 is expressed similarly in both.
With the help of mentor professors from uclaneuroscience, Grutzik conducted research over two years to determine how various levels of this protein affects the quality of communication through speech.
“When a baby is first born, they cry,” Grutzik explains. “Finches learn how to sing, like we learn how to talk. FOXP2 is involved in speech development in humans and in songbirds. Scientists study FOXP2 in songbirds so they can learn more about it in humans.”
“It is the only single gene that, when mutated, results in a human speech and language disorder,” says UCLA’s Dr. Stephanie White.
“We have excellent undergrads at UCLA,” says Dr. Nancy Day, Grutzik’s mentor at UCLA. “But there’s something special about Petra. We saw it as an excellent opportunity to embrace this eager young woman so that we could not only challenge her but she could challenge us. Petra has infused an energy into the lab that we didn’t have before.”
Grutzik also tapped into her background in robotics to design and build a cage for the finches that was long enough and had two separate chambers in which she could conduct her testing on the birds.
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