So much for the stereotype of teens as video-gaming, Cheetos-eating layabouts. A 17-year-old from Portland, Oregon has made a significant contribution to science with his research into non-addictive painkillers.
Raghav Tripathi, a high school senior, is one of six national finalists in this year's annual Siemens science competition with a chance to win $100,000 in scholarship money. He won the coveted spot by investigating a compound called anandamide, which is naturally released in the body to slow pain. By increasing anandamide levels in the body, he says he may be able reduce the dangers of addictive pain killers.
"The end product will hopefully be some sort of pill, vaccine, maybe a spray or something that can be used by people who are suffering from pain," Tripathi told ABC's Portland affiliate, KATU.
Tripathi said he was inspired to find a better painkiller after his mother broke her leg in a skiing accident and refused to take medication during her recovery for fear she might become dependent.
If his research pays off, it won't be just Tripathi's mother who benefits. More than 50 million people in this country endure chronic pain, according to CDC statistics. The growing dilemma for healthcare providers is how to ease their suffering without putting them in danger of addiction or medication abuse.
Emergency room visits for prescription painkiller abuse or misuse have doubled in the past 5 years to nearly half a million, CDC numbers also show. Overdoses of the drugs have more than tripled in the past 20 years and prescription drugs are now responsible for the death of more than 15,500 people in the United States alone.
Tripathi's research earned him a scholarship last summer to work in a New York lab. While there, he spent countless hours working, including many sleepless nights advancing his work on safer pain medications. Jeniffer Harper Taylor, the Siemens Foundation president, said his accomplishments already put him on par with Ph.D.-level scientists.
"Think about a high school student doing research at that level, it's just amazing," she said.
Taylor said the Siemens competition is open to all high school seniors and that there are other impressive finalists this year as well. For example, Sam Pritt of Virginia has invented geolocation software that can pinpoint exactly where a photo was taken. FEMA reached out to him during Hurricane Sandy for help identifying photos of beaches that were damaged or destroyed by the storm.
The Siemens Foundation website will live stream student presentations from Washington, D.C. on Monday, Dec. 3, starting at 1:00 p.m. The awards ceremony will be live streamed on Tuesday, Dec. 4, beginning at 9:30 a.m.
Whatever way the awards go, Tripathi is already a winner. On his way to becoming a Siemens finalist, he was awarded a $3,000 first place prize in the cellular and molecular biology category at the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.
His mother, whose leg has long since healed, is no doubt proud.