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Studying the Might of the Minuscule

Oakton 17-year-old and TJ student advances to the finals of a national science talent search.

The movements required to read a newspaper — the turning of pages by the fingers, the glancing at headlines and advertisements, and the blinking of the eyes — are due to myosin, a molecule-sized muscle that uses chemical energy to perform a motion.

But how does this minuscule muscle move? That's what Divya Nettimi, a 17-year-old Oakton resident and senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology was determined to find out.

"It's really important in the human body because it drives muscle contractions," said Divya, whose research on the topic made her a finalist of a national science talent search.

Divya has spent the past weekend explaining to judges why her project, titled "Connecting the Macro-Scale to the Nano-Scale: New Insights into the Kinetics of the Myosin-Actin Molecular Biomotor System," should win the Intel Science Talent Search, held this past March 11-16 in Washington, D.C. Divya competed with 39 other finalists from 14 states and the District of Columbia for $530,000 in scholarships.

"The important thing for students today is they need to do science projects which are contemporary problems in science and technology," said Robert E. Latham, laboratory director of optics and modern physics at TJ, and Divya's adviser to her project. "Divya's a great example of that because she's doing research in an area which will lead to something great and where people don't know the answers yet."

Divya's project studies the kinetics, or movement, of myosin. She discovered that her conclusion, which included an equation deducting myosin's rate of motion, contradicted what she had formerly thought. Myosin reactions rely a lot more on myosin than on ATP, the molecule that supplies energy to myosin.

"Not a lot of research has been done on this before," Divya said.

DURING THE SCHOOL year and for 40 hours a week during the summer, Divya interned in the Nanotechnology Department of the Mitre Corp. in McLean in order to conduct research for her project. She has worked on this research for over a year and plans to continue it even after the competition is finished.

"Divya has an extraordinary academic ability and achievement," said Dr. James C. Ellenbogen, who leads the nanotechnology research and development effort and coordinates the student program at Mitre. "She did a terrific job on her paper."

Divya explained that nanotechnology combines her interests in biology and physics.

"Nanotechnology has incredible amounts of application in the world," said Divya, pointing to anthrax, as well as applications in military and civilian life. "It's crazy that we can control so much on such a small scale."

This coming fall, Divya hopes to attend Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., and study either engineering or the pure sciences.

"I like being given problems where there's no real method to solve it. ... I like things where I can make my own path," Divya said. "Discovering something in science is like discovering how everything around us works."

When Divya is not conducting research for her project, she is president of the Spanish Honor Society, co-president of the National Honor Society and co-captain of the lacrosse team. She volunteers at a hospital library every week and helped start an assistive technology club at school, which makes reading devices for autistic students at the preschool level.

"She learns very quickly with whatever you teach her," Latham said. "She just loves to jump right in and learn about things."