Camas student wins Oregon science contest

Chang impresses with talk on lab’s research into sleep, memory

By Adam Littman, Columbian Staff Writer

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CAMAS — It was the unknown that got Monica Chang her internship.

The Camas High School junior was asked to work at a booth during a Girls in STEM event for middle school students, where she was teamed up with Barbara Sorg, a professor of neuroscience at Washington State University Vancouver. After spending some time with her, Sorg offered Chang an internship in her lab.

“It was her curiosity, asking question after question about my work,” Sorg wrote in an email. “In addition, I was so impressed when she said how fun it would be to conduct experiments in which one didn’t already know the answer, as in standard class laboratory experiments. She knew, at age 14, that doing ‘real science’ meant not knowing the answers ahead of time. I don’t remember what I was thinking at age 14, but it certainly wasn’t anything as sophisticated as that.”

Chang, now 15, spent time in the lab working with Sorg, undergraduates and postdoctoral fellows on a neuroscience project related to sleep and memory. In the lab, Chang beta-tested a program someone else in the lab had written.

It was her work in the lab that led her to enter the Oregon Bioscience Showcase Research Fast Pitch competition.

Chang won the competition by giving a three-minute presentation on the lab’s work in front of 200-plus people in the Empirical Theater at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. She said she’s comfortable with public speaking thanks to her work in the school’s DECA program.

“The hardest part was giving a concise three-minute presentation,” she said. “It’s much tougher to give a three-minute presentation than a 10-minute one.”

Her presentation, “A Closer Look at Memory: The Effect of Diurnal Rhythms on Perineuronal Nets,” detailed the lab’s study of the relationship between sleep and memory-related structures in the brain. The researchers used a rat model to study the nets, which are memory-related structures that surround certain neurons in the prefrontal cortex.

“I was impressed with her poise, her flow of ideas and most notably her ability to engage the audience in a way that made her presentation sound more like a discussion than a lecture,” Sorg wrote. “She was able to take a difficult subject and make it accessible to a broad audience. She neither oversold nor undersold the ideas and the results of the study, which is a tough balance to strike.”

For her win, Chang earned a $400 mini iPad and got to meet Oregon Gov. Kate Brown.

According to Chang’s presentation, the nets became thinner during sleep. As that happens, more so-called holes could appear, allowing for more synaptic connections with neurons. That could contribute to memory consolidation during sleep.

“Not only is sleep important for our physical bodies,” Chang said during her presentation. “It’s extremely important for our mental function, as well, especially with regards to memory consolidation, the process of converting short-term to long-term memory.”

Chang, who is in Camas High School’s magnet program, isn’t sure what she wants to study in college or do professionally just yet. Her interests are spread around between research, coding and marketing. She said she tells herself to “do stuff you actually like to do.”

“If you do stuff you don’t like, you’re not going to work very hard at it,” she said.

One thing Chang likes doing is encouraging younger girls to take classes in more traditionally male-dominated fields. She started a Girls Who Code club at Camas after noticing she was one of three girls in her computer science class. Through the school’s DECA program, she started a “Girls Represent” speaker series, bringing in professional women from a variety of fields.

Chang said her parents, who are both doctors, helped her feel like she could head down any career path.

“I’ve been really, really lucky throughout my life,” she said. “I’ve always been in these programs, and received support instead of discouragement.”

Chang said once the school year is done, she hopes to go back to working in Sorg’s lab. Sorg would be happy to have her.

“Monica attended some of our lab meetings, which is somewhat like a journal club,” Sorg wrote. “She, not surprisingly, asked many stimulating questions and gave excellent critiques of other students running through practice presentations for a meeting. She is wonderful to work with, highly engaged with others in the lab and always cheerful.”