Explaining her research, Maria Balhara sounds like a typical scientist: she had a hypothesis. She recruited participants to evaluate. She analyzed the data. Soon, she will be presenting her work at major scientific conferences.
It can be a routine for a professor or a graduate student. For a 16-year-old high school student, not so much.
Balhara, a senior student at Cooper City High School in South Florida, will present her work, “Proposing a New ‘Gateway Food Model’ for Adolescent Eating Behavior and Its Implications for Modifiable Hypertension Risk Factors,” Saturday at the Hypertension Scientific of the American Heart Association. Sessions in San Diego.
Her research was conceived as she thought about how ‘gateway’ drugs can get people to try other drugs. She thought something similar might happen with ultra-processed foods in teenage diets.
“This hypothesis turned out to be correct,” said Balhara, who found that increased consumption of candy, prepackaged pastries and frozen desserts was associated with increased consumption of other ultra-processed foods. Results are considered preliminary until full results are published in a peer-reviewed journal.
That’s not the only research she’ll be presenting this fall. In October, she will attend a conference of the American Academy of Pediatrics in Anaheim, Calif., to present another analysis from the same dataset. Meanwhile, other offshoots will be presented at conferences in the United States, Europe, and Japan.
Her work began in her high school’s AP Capstone classes, a two-year program that culminates in a research project. She continued the work while dual enrolled in a human nutrition course at Broward College.
She spent about six months designing and completing the study. The original plan, however, did not contemplate all of these conferences. “It was just, you know, doing some kind of quiz or survey,” and then communicating that in an article.
When she did her analyses, her father, who works as a consultant in the pharmaceutical industry, had the idea to submit them. She was looking forward to doing this. “I think a lot of times teenagers put these restrictions on themselves and say, ‘Nobody wants to read my research. No one will care.” She hopes to help others overcome that kind of thinking and follow in her footsteps.
Clearly driven — and a self-proclaimed perfectionist (“I’m also a night owl, which is a bad combination”) — Balhara is poised and cheerful as she explains how she got here. It’s not like she started reading scientific journals as a child, she says. She considers herself “surprisingly average”, someone who loves classic movies – “Back to the Future” is a favorite – and hiking, when she can find the time.
But it’s true that she has long been passionate about nutrition. Maybe a little obsessed.
“My friends and family tell me all the time, ‘God, you never shut up about food,'” she laughed. “I say, ‘Well, that’s important.'”
Much of her interest stems, she says, from her multicultural background. Her father is from India; his mother, who wanted to be a biologist but ended up working in logistics, is Brazilian.
“It’s very different cultures, you know, very different foods,” said Balhara, whose parents divorced when she was in elementary school. She was fascinated by the differences she saw between the two sides of her family – and at school, where her lunch included things like Brazilian chicken when the kids around her ate ham and cheese sandwiches.
So her first nutritional “research” was asking basic questions about what she was seeing. “You know, what kind of nutrients are in this food, or this food?” she says.
She also found herself thinking about how food and culture are connected. “If you tell an Indian who eats traditional Indian food that he should start eating raw vegetables three times a day, he will laugh at you,” she said. “Because in Indian cuisine, vegetables are usually never eaten raw. They always have to be cooked in some kind of curry.” But the Brazilian culture, she observed, was more open to raw foods.
Balhara has always had traits that set her apart, even among gifted children, said Professor Michael Jones. He teaches sociology and history at Cooper City High, but was also his fifth-grade teacher.
Unsurprisingly, he expects great things from her. “Maria is a very, very, very driven young woman,” he said. “If you talk to her for more than five minutes, you’ll get that feeling. She’s been like that since the first time I met her.”
But Balhara, he said, is not driven by external factors such as winning awards or teacher approval. She cares about the work she does. Research, he said, is something she finds important, rather than just a useful way to achieve her academic goals.
She spent her summer in Boston, where she interned in a pediatric endocrinology lab at Massachusetts General Hospital. Next year, she hopes to be accepted into a university with a strong science program. Beyond that, she is interested in medical school and a career in research. But she keeps her options open.
Meanwhile, Balhara hopes others might follow her work. And if some of those researchers are other teenagers, so much the better, she says. “Adolescent eating habits are certainly an important topic, but it’s one that teenagers themselves usually don’t have the capacity to contribute in scientific fields.”
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