NEW TAMPA — The science fair "princess" has missed one day of school since kindergarten — to help her brother make the move to Washington University in St. Louis.
He was a science fair whiz too.
But Jasmine Roberts aims to best her brother's scientific accomplishments, and she is not doing too badly.
Already she appeared with the queen of talk shows about a project that compared the bacteria levels in fast food restaurant ice with toilet water. That's why her friends at Wharton High School call her "Oprah."
Now, the 15-year-old sophomore is a three-time winner of the Best of Fair award and a two-time entrant of the Intel International Science Fair. Next week, she will represent Hillsborough in the medicine and health sciences category at the State Science and Engineering Fair in Lakeland. In May, she represents Florida at an international competition in Reno, Nev.
For both contests, she'll use this year's project. Roberts tested mouse brains to answer her question: "Does chronic hyperglycemia have an effect on Alzheimer's Amyloid-B pathology in the brain?"
To the layman: Is diabetes a risk factor, increasing a chemical in the brain that leads to Alzheimer's?
She examined more than 100 slides of dyed brain tissue. Under the microscope, Roberts found more Amyloid-B plaque in the brains of mice that suffered from diabetes and Alzheimer's than those that suffered only Alzheimer's. She also found that mice with just diabetes had a normal level of the Amyloid-B plaque.
Her conclusion? Diabetes is a risk factor that increases the brain's susceptibility to Alzheimer's.
Roberts has investigated Alzheimer's for the last two years. Her interest is personal. Her grandfather suffers from Alzheimer's and other family members have diabetes, she said.
"I wanted to make a contribution to science and leave my thumbprint," Roberts said.
For this study, she spent nine months in a lab at the University of South Florida, cutting and dissecting the mouse brains.
Carmen Austin, the science department head at Wharton, and Marcia Gordon, a scientist at USF, are her mentors, she said.
She caught the science bug years ago, while attending summer camps at the Museum of Science and Industry. That rivalry with her brother, Justus Roberts II, also helped.
Proud parents Justus and Minnie work in the information technology industry and cultivated their children's interest in science from the start.
"We told the kids when they were young … what is going to differentiate yourself from the pack?" Justus said.
Roberts' parents started calling her "science princess" in middle school.
She loves asking questions and investigating the answers, then putting it on display for competition. "It makes me different from other people in high school," Roberts said. When her classmates think of the science fair, she said, "they think nerd fest."
It used to take her nearly a week to put together the display board. This year, she had it done in two days.
She describes the competition process as nerve-racking. But she knows how to get through it with some advice from her brother: Stay calm and know your project.
"I know when I wake up in the morning, it's science fair," Roberts said.
Her favorite subject is math, then science, she said. She has a 4.8 grade-point average.
This summer, she will work a paid internship for the National Institutes of Health. She plans to become a neurosurgeon, operating and working with human brains.
Between school and science fairs, Roberts hangs out with friends at the Shops at Wiregrass in Wesley Chapel, watches movies and goes to the beach. She also attends Bible-Based Fellowship Church of Temple Terrace.
She has a bit of advice for other budding scientists:
"Think of something you would be fascinated about if you had never heard of it before," Roberts said.
Jared Leone can be reached at (813) 269-5314 or firstname.lastname@example.org.