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Five Questions with Zoe Weissman, winner of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Award for Health Advancement

By Aparna Paul

Zoe Weissman, a 15-year old 9th grader from Plantation, Florida, believes that science will be the ticket to diminishing most of the problems that riddle our world. She is most passionate about helping others and society through her research.

For instance, when Zoe learned that many clinical trials heavily rely on male subjects instead of both sexes — including in her specific area of study focused on pain perception — she knew she wanted to alleviate the gender disparities in medicine. She tells the Society that, “My project is on the bias against women in medicine. My research is in an area that I feel isn’t explored enough in the scientific community.” Research has shown that women, on average, report feeling more pain than men in response to the same stimuli; they also suffer more painful medical conditions overall (i.e. childbirth and other chronic pain). Women have also been shown to report their pain more often than men, consequently receiving prescriptions for opioids more frequently, in turn making them extra vulnerable to substance abuse and opioid addiction.

Because women and men respond to pain differently and their behavior varies when seeking medical attention, effective treatments may need to be tailored by sex or gender. With this knowledge, Zoe worked to find natural medicines that could work as possible alternatives to the popularly-prescribed opioids, that would not only help both men and women equally, but could also decrease opioid abuse as well. Zoe ultimately found that three plant-based treatments tested in her trials (Salicin, Caffeine and Cinnamic acid) reduced pain perception in both males and females in her model organism of fruit flies compared to control groups.

In this year’s Broadcom MASTERS competition, Zoe won the $10,000 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Award for Health Advancement, recognizing her promise, hard work and performance in health-related fields. Let’s hear more from Zoe below!


Which sci-fi advancement do you wish we had by now?

I wish we could have invented lightsabers already. I love Star Wars and it’s arguably my favorite movie series. I even had a Star Wars-themed Bat Mitzvah! Therefore, I’d love to see lightsabers that function like they do in the Star Wars universe. I know that some scientists have been able to create a blade that functions similarly to a lightsaber, but it takes a while to break through materials and requires a power source at all times. Although currently impossible, it would be so cool to see an accurate lightsaber in real life.

Which scientist – alive or deceased – would you want to solve scientific mysteries with and why?

I would probably choose Stephen Hawking. Although he specialized in theoretical physics whereas I’m focused on biology and chemistry, he just seems like such an interesting person to spend time with. He was able to discover theorems about the universe while battling a physical disability. He is so inspiring and, in an ideal world, I would love to have the opportunity to work with him.

What would you invent if you had all the resources in the world?

I would invent a food that has all the necessary nutrients that is extremely cheap and can be produced synthetically so it will never be too high in demand. Inventing such a food could potentially solve world hunger and give everyone access to a nutritious, reliable food source. Although it may seem like a straightforward idea, millions of people in developing countries are currently starving and are unable to even find food for themselves and their families. However, this theoretical invention would solve that problem.

Given that Broadcom MASTERS went virtual this year, what about your experience surprised you the most?

The most interesting aspect of having Broadcom MASTERS as a virtual event is how the team challenges were set up. I was shipped a different box for each challenge that had all the materials I needed. For example, for our Raspberry Pi challenge, I received all of the electronics I needed to execute my code. They were also surprisingly able to incorporate virtual elements into the challenges and keep it just as fun and exciting.

What was your favorite experience from virtual Broadcom MASTERS a nd why?

My most memorable experience from virtual Broadcom MASTERS was becoming friends with the 29 other competitors. They were all so kind and inspiring and we all quickly became friends. I’ve made lifelong friends and all of us still keep in touch! After every competition event, we would all go on Zoom calls with each other; it was so much fun and one of the many highlights of the competition. I am so thankful to the Broadcom MASTERS for introducing me to such amazing new friends!