TROY — It started out as a “mom joke.”
It became one of the best high school science fair projects in the state of Ohio.
Last spring, Ella Furlong — then a sophomore as Troy High School — was looking for a science fair project for Troy teacher Debra Neff’s advanced biology class. She was thinking about a project involving solar power, but then a chance phone call between her mother and one of her mother’s friends changed not only the scope of Furlong’s project, but perhaps the course of her entire future.
“My mother was talking on the phone with one of her friends, who was breastfeeding,” Furlong said. “Her friend joked that maybe I could do some sort of project with breast milk. Originally, I was going to do something with solar power, but after my mom’s friend said that, I started actually doing some research on it.“
What Furlong — who, in addition to being a straight-A student while taking a class load that would make many college students cringe, also is a two-sport athlete (volleyball and softball) for the Trojans — found amazed her.
“When I first started researching it, I found mostly mommy blogs, talking about how it was ‘liquid gold’ for infants,” Furlong said. “But then when I started doing more research, I found out some things I didn’t expect. I found a study in which Jonas Salk, who discovered the cure for polio, did a study with it in which he used breast milk to treat mice with polio. Another study in Sweden found breast milk killed cancer cells. There are natural antibodies in the proteins that have stem cell qualities.”
And that’s how Furlong’s science fair project was born.
Through a number of experiments, Furlong found that breast milk — which generously was donated by a number of family friends — could build off its own proteins to fight off bacterium such as E. Coli and B. Cereus, as well as a series of molds. She also was able to prove breast milk increased the rate of stem cell growth.
Incredibly, Furlong — the daughter of Colby and Erika Furlong — managed to do the entire project in Petri dishes set up in her family home.
“Our kitchen was off-limits for a little while,” Furlong said with a laugh.
Once her project was completed last spring, Furlong took it to the Miami County Science Fair at Tippecanoe High School, where she earned a “superior” rating, scoring a 38 out of 40 points. For extra credit in her biology class, she then took the project to the district science fair at Edison State Community College, where she actually earned a 40 out of 40 and qualified for the state competition.
At the state science fair, she earned second place for the entire event, again scoring a perfect 40.
“They’re in control of the entire project,” Neff said of her students. “I don’t even see the project until the week before the competition. I don’t try to predict who will do well and who will not; I don’t think that’s a good service to the kids. But I thought her idea was very clever. My background is in microbiology and I felt like it was the perfect project … apparently the judges thought so, too.”
Furlong wouldn’t find out until later how well she had scored or how high she had placed in the competition — because she had another commitment she had to fulfill that day.
“A perfect score was something I didn’t expect; I actually had to leave the competition early for a softball game,” she said.
In addition two being a star in the classroom, Furlong also is a stellar two-sport athlete for the Trojans, proving that even in today’s world, the term “scholar-athlete” isn’t always an oxymoron.
Last spring in softball — which she was playing while at the same time completing her science fair project and playing for her club volleyball team — Furlong earned All-Greater Western Ohio Conference special mention honors, hitting .329 with eight RBI and four doubles. This fall, she’s a defensive specialist for the Troy volleyball team, which will be playing in Division I sectional tournament action Saturday. She’s recorded 82 digs so far this season.
Troy volleyball coach Michelle Owen — who also teaches calculus at Troy — says the balancing act between athletics and academics that Furlong has been able to maintain is nothing short of amazing.
“We’ve got a lot of smart kids on our volleyball team as a whole — we’ve got a really high team GPA,” Owen said. “Ella takes school very seriously. Just the other day she came up and asked me if it would be OK if she missed the first 10 minutes of a practice so she could go to a study session. That’s the kind of kid she is. School is very important to her.
“When she did that project last spring, she was also in the middle of softball season and her (Junior Olympic) volleyball season. Just playing those two sports alone takes an incredible amount of time. You’re talking about going to softball practice every day, then playing three games a week. If there are rainouts, you could be playing even more games than that. Then she’s also practicing with her club team. You take all of that, plus all of the advanced classes she’s taking and then throw in the science fair project … that’s pretty impressive.”
Furlong said it can be a grind maintaining that type of schedule — but the dedication it takes to excel at both athletics and academics also goes hand-in-hand sometimes.
“Sometimes it gets pretty tough,” she said. “Sometimes I’m up until midnight or 1 a.m., but I manage. It’s hard because I play travel ball for both sports. I’ve definitely learned to manage my time and get things done — I don’t wait until the last minute to do anything. I don’t mind — if I wasn’t doing homework or sports, what would I be doing?
“(Fellow Troy volleyball player) Kate Orban and I are in a lot of the same classes, so we struggle together. The volleyball team is a good group of students — we are all always doing our homework before games. I think being competitive in sports also makes you super-competitive academically.”
Not surprisingly, Furlong has high hopes for her future. She wants to study medicine in college, and she dreams of one day becoming a neurosurgeon. She’s looked into a number of schools with incredible national reputations — including Brown, Northwestern and UCLA — but said her dream school is Case Western Reserve University, site of the state science fair competition.
The winner of last year’s state science fair has the opportunity to claim a $100,000 scholarship to Case Western but if he or she chooses not to, as first-alternate, Furlong would then be eligible for the scholarship, which she said she’d gladly accept.
“Case Western is my dream school,” she said. “My dad works for a cancer research company and spends a lot of time working at the Cleveland Clinic as well as Case Western, so I’ve been there and I’m familiar with the school. I’ve kind of joked that I should try to talk the winner into going somewhere else for college so I could get the scholarship to go to Case Western.”
It would seem to be a fitting conclusion to a science fair project that may have started as a joke — but in the end, certainly was no laughing matter.
Contact David Fong at email@example.com; follow him on Twitter @thefong