His Other Classroom? The Lab
LEOMINSTER -- Don’t even bother with the Doogie Howser jokes. The fictional teenage doctor of early ’90s television is way before Connor Casey’s time.
“I honestly have no idea who that is,” said the 16-year-old Leominster High School senior.
But the comparison is almost inescapable.
Casey is not yet old enough to drive, meaning his mom has to drop him off at the University of Massachusetts Medical School’s campus in Worcester. He’s not a student there, but that hasn’t stopped him from spearheading a research project in one of the school’s labs that he hopes will lead to an alternative treatment to heart arrhythmias with fewer negative side effects.
Dr. Michael Francis, an associate professor of neurobiology at UMass, said coming across someone as young and ambitious as Casey is rare.
“This has happened, but it has never panned out before. You may get the passing email from a high school student, but they don’t usually follow through,” he said. “I know of other labs in the department that have hosted high school students in the past, but I could probably count them all on one hand.”
Casey reached out to UMass on his owns and began his research in Francis’ lab this month, but his work goes all the way back to when he was in the eighth grade.
“In medical school, it’s very attractive as an undergrad to already have research completed,” he explained. “I thought, ‘Why not try to see if I can have adequate research completed before I even go to college?’”
Working in a makeshift lab at his house, he started by researching how exposure to sugars affects the lifespan of caenorhabditis elegans, a transparent roundworm with certain genetic properties similar to humans.
That project was scrapped when Casey’s health took an unexpected turn. As a competitive swimmer, he’s experienced issues with his heart in the last few years. He was diagnosed with a cardiac arrhythmia, a malfunction in the heart’s electrical system causing it to beat irregularly, and had surgery to correct it this summer.
“As much as it sounds weird, when I had my heart surgery, it was really interesting. Not getting the surgery, but getting to talk to all of the doctors,” he said. “I have this connection to cardiology now so I want to help better the lives of people with cardiac arrhythmias.”
Patients like Casey are typically treated using a medication commonly known as beta-blockers. They can restore a healthy heartbeat, but they can also cause side effects like nausea and convulsions.
Casey now plans to test about a dozen compounds -- many of them derived from plants and herbs used in alternative medicine -- to treat caenorhabditis elegans that he is modifying to work like a human heart with an irregular beat.
“The elegans have a muscular tube in them called a pharynx and I’m going to put a mutation in the pharynx that allows it to beat irregularly,” he said. “The genes I mutate in the worm correlate closely to the human genome. I’m trying to cause that mutation to (disappear) by applying these different substances.”
It’s work that requires Casey to travel to Worcester at the end of nearly every school day and sometimes keeps him in the lab for up to four hours at a time. As Francis explained, Casey’s work is limited by the amount of time he can spend on it compared to someone working on a Ph.D. thesis project.
“There’s always an element of uncertainty with science but the ideas he’s pursuing are good. He’s gone and talked to clinicians to get feedback and ask the most relevant questions,” he said. “This isn’t just a high school science project.”
LHS Assistant Principal Michelle Olivari said Casey is only one of two high school students she’s encountered in her career that have actually sought out colleges and universities on their own to find a place where they could do independent scientific research.
“To be this self-motivated and to go out and make these contacts he has made is few and far between,” she said. “It’s a level of maturity you don’t really see.”
To support his research, Casey has established a GoFundMe page where he is accepting donations. His fundraising goal is $3,500.
Follow Peter Jasinski on Twitter @PeterJasinski53.