NC scientist, only 17, wins national award for traumatic brain injury project

Tribune Content Agency

Linden James didn’t just play in the yard like any other kid.

With a burgeoning fascination with science, James’ parents nurtured that curiosity by asking questions about what they learned about dirt while playing in the yard, and then they helped James further that interest.

“They got me a chemistry kit where I made my bathroom kind of smell like gray for an extended period,” James recalls. “But it was worth it.”

James might say it was worth at least $90,000.

This month, the 17-year-old senior at the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics in Durham won $90,000 for coming in fifth place out of 40 finalists at the 2023 Regeneron Science Talent Search. Previously known as the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, it’s the nation’s oldest and most prestigious science and math competition for high school seniors.

James is one of 10 students who were cumulatively awarded more than $1.8 million for their respective scientific research projects. Three other School of Science and Math students were finalists and will each receive $25,000.

“When I found out I was a finalist, I was at softball practice and started screaming,” James told The N&O in an interview. “When my name was called, I had an opening of my eyes in widening disbelief that I haven’t gotten out of quite yet.”

James, who lives in Durham and is nonbinary, uses they/them pronouns.

James’ project investigated the possible benefit of using a thyroid hormone, known as T3, to treat traumatic brain injuries in humans. James used wax moth caterpillars as subjects.

“Linden is a gifted young neuroscientist whose research into a potential new treatment for traumatic brain injury could help us improve patient outcomes, and we very much look forward to finding out what they’ll do next,” Maya Ajmera, President and CEO of Society for Science and Executive Publisher, Science News, said in a statement.

How James achieved their project

James’ project consisted of developing a device to give caterpillars traumatic brain injuries, like those of humans, followed by treatment.

James found that the injured worms performed better on agility tests after being treated with the caterpillar version of T3.

“Since insect brains are kind of dispersed throughout their body, this would give them varying degrees of traumatic brain injury,” said James, explaining the project with the cadence of a scientist with several college degrees.

The inspiration for the project lies in James’ own family history of thyroid conditions. James also has witnessed traumatic brain injuries in sports they participate in, such as softball, tennis and soccer.

As a child, James spent some time in hospitals as family members dealt with some neurological health issues. That’s when they observed and marveled at the science inside hospitals.

James credits their parents with fueling their interest in science. James also credits their teachers for their success. Alexis Caldwell, James’ honors biology teacher at the Durham School of the Arts, also inspired them to pursue science before transferring to NCSM for their junior and senior year. James participated in a research and biology program with teacher Heather Mallory.

Future in teaching, biology

This win is the latest accolade for the gifted student and community leader who is passionate about teaching and LGBTQ causes.

“Being a nonbinary and queer finalist, this competition really speaks volumes to the acceptance and inclusion that the Regeneron Science Talent Search perpetuates,” James said. “I grew up in a family with two moms in a community that wasn’t always very accepting. And so coming this far is really empowering for me.”

James plans to use the prize money toward pursuing a degree abroad in the science and biology field. Their professional aspirations include the intersection of science and policy, such as environmental policy or working to develop neurobiology sectors in underresourced countries, they said.

But for now, they might take a year off after graduating to reach children in marginalized communities, such as in western North Carolina or West Virginia.

“I really do like working with kids,” they said.

James is a counselor with the Schoolhouse of Wonder summer camp in Durham and volunteers with Kids Voting Durham. In addition to sports, James is the design-competition lead for the school’s robotics team. They also help teach and tutor Spanish.

“I’ve had mentors that really inspired me to keep going and have really shown me that I defined my self worth, not any societal standards, not anyone else’s opinions of me,” said James. “Being able to pass that on, through this program, and through the people I interact with, and through the young queer scientists that might be looking up to me now… that’s really amazing.”

The N.C. School of Science and Mathematics opened as the nation’s first public, residential STEM high school in 1980 in the former Watts Hospital in Durham. A second campus in Morganton opened last fall.