Stephen Litt does more than just dream big; he likes to follow those dreams too, even though he’s probably been told more than once that he’s too young to accomplish things this big.
When the 12-year-old from Marietta, Georgia, needed a science fair project, he originally wanted to work with malaria. When he and his dad realized the project would be unrealistic for the time span and the materials needed, he looked to some family friends, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer, for new inspiration. He wanted to see what he could do to help them, even though neither he nor his family expected the research to go quite this far.
Litt has always been interested in chemistry, biology, and engineering. Even though he isn’t in high school yet, he’s thinking ahead to his future and hoping to become a chemical engineer. So he used his skills and passion for science to come up with a fantastic idea to help his family’s friends with breast cancer and do well at his middle-school science fair.
A single article on the antioxidant benefits of green tea led Litt to conduct further research and design an experiment using green tea to prevent cancer from growing in the body. “I didn’t know he was even reading about that,” his dad said, “And the next thing I know, he has a binder full of articles and research.”
A component of green tea known as EGCG is believed to be able to stop carcinogens from producing cancerous tumors. It seemed like a simple idea at first, but the experiment turned into a much bigger project than Litt thought it would be.
He needed a way to prove that the green tea was really preventing cancerous tumors, so he rounded up some planarian flatworms to conduct his experiment. He divided them into groups, placing a quarter of them in spring water as a control group. One of the other groups was exposed to two different carcinogens, and another was exposed to the EGCG from green tea. The last group was exposed to both EGCG and carcinogens.
The two groups of planarians exposed to EGCG grew no tumors during the time he observed them under his microscope.
None of this could have been done without his parents’ hefty donation of a couple of thousand dollars, of course. It was a big chunk of change to spend on a science fair project, but when that project also promises the possibility of changing the world and improving the lives of millions of people, it’s worth it. Besides that, Litt won six awards.
Shortly after winning the science fair, Litt was invited to Tufts University over spring break for a celebratory tour of a professional lab. Michael Levin, the director of Tuft’s Allen Discovery Center, reviewed the science fair project and decided Litt was well beyond his years in terms of scientific understanding.
“The work is very interesting and has the potential to advance not only cancer research but regenerative medicine as well. It was clear that he thought very deeply about these issues.”
Litt plans to further develop his research next year with an experiment on more complex organisms. “I don’t know how to describe it. It just feels good,” he says about his research. “I’m doing something important. I’m doing something that is scientific, and I’m doing something that could potentially help people.”
You go, kid. We know you’re going to grow up to do some spectacular things.
Learn more about Stephen Litt and his fantastic science fair project in the video below.
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?