Camas teen answers call on hearing research

Sophomore heading to international science competition

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian Health Reporter

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In the fifth grade, a routine test revealed hearing loss in Tsering Shola’s right ear. Little did Tsering or her parents know, that diagnosis would set Shola up for success as a Camas High School sophomore.

This weekend, Tsering is heading to Los Angeles to compete in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair — the largest precollege scientific research event in the world. The trip will cap a string of successes the 16-year-old has had at state science fairs where she presented a project that made “a great contribution” to an Oregon Health & Science University lab.

“She deserves the accolades coming her way,” said Peter Steyger, a researcher and professor of otolaryngology at OHSU. Steyger has been mentoring Tsering for about a year and a half.

Validating work

As an elementary school student, Tsering was diagnosed with sensorineural hearing loss — the most common type of hearing loss. The deficit was great enough that Tsering needed a hearing aid, but it also sparked a career interest.

“I thought it would be cool to be an audiologist,” she said.

As an eighth-grader, Tsering decided to act on that interest and reached out to local professors, one of whom connected the middle schooler to Steyger.

“I was very happy to take her on, primarily because she also has a hearing loss like myself,” Steyger said. “It’s been a very fruitful collaboration, really.”

Because she wasn’t yet 16, Tsering couldn’t work in the actual lab. So Steyger presented her with a project that could be done anywhere Tsering could use a computer.

When certain drugs — namely, a class of antibiotics called aminoglycosides — cross the blood-labyrinth barrier, they enter the tissues of the inner ear, such as the cochlear, and can kill the sensory cells that allow a person to hear.

To learn how and why that happens, researchers segment images of the inner ear using a manual process that can take hours for each image, Steyger said.

A colleague of Steyger’s developed an algorithm that allows a machine to do the segmenting. The problem was nobody had the time to test the effectiveness of the machine by comparing its results with that of manual segmenting, Steyger said.

So, Steyger presented the project to Tsering.

Over about seven months, the high schooler manually manipulated the images and then ran the same images through the machine and compared the results. She looked at 150 to 200 images. The manual segmenting took about two hours for each image; the machine did it in about 2 minutes.

“It’s much, much faster if we can validate the process,” Steyger said. “And that’s exactly what (Tsering) tested, and she found the machine segmentation paralleled the manual segmentation.”

“We now have very good confidence in our machine segmentation, thanks to Tsering,” he added. “That gives a good foundation to automate what we’ve been doing manually for 10 years.”

While the work was important, it certainly wasn’t glamorous.

“It really is grunt work,” Steyger said.

For Tsering, just being exposed to Steyger and others in the OHSU lab pushed her to stick with the project, she said. She also tried to make the project fun.

“I thought of spending hours on these images as a coloring book because that’s kinda what it is,” Tsering said. “I made it fun in quirky ways.”

‘Blessing in disguise’

That painstaking work is paying off for Tsering.

In March, Tsering placed first in the life sciences category and second overall at the Southwest Washington Regional Science and Engineering Fair — her first science fair competition. The second-place finish earned her a spot in the Intel competition, which runs Sunday through Thursday.

Then, in April, Tsering finished first in the biomedical and health sciences category at the Washington State Science and Engineering Fair. Her project was also one of the top 18 presented at the fair.

At the state fair, Tsering was awarded an $80,000 scholarship to Ohio Wesleyan University and one paid quarter at The Evergreen State College. She also received a software license from Wolfram Research – Mathematica.

Tsering isn’t putting pressure on herself heading into the Intel event this weekend. She’s found she performs best when she has a “try your best” mindset. And, for Tsering, just educating people about something that has changed her life is rewarding enough.

“It’s a blessing in disguise,” Tsering said. “If I wasn’t diagnosed with sensorineural hearing loss, I definitely wouldn’t see myself down this path.”

“I’m glad I’m deaf.”