NEW ORLEANS -- When Anusha Zaman was in middle school, she was already in love with science and working in a lab.
"I looked at the effects of betel leaf and gutkha (which is tobacco) on detoxification genes in human oral keratinocytes," Zaman explained.
For the record, betel leaf is a psychostimulant that is chewed and she looked at its effects on cells in the mouth.
And now the 16-year-old, who just finished her sophomore year at Baton Rouge Magnet High School, and who by the ways speaks Japanese, Bengali and English, has caught the attention of the top scientists in the federal government who are studying addiction.
Anusha recently won the first place Addiction Science Award at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. It's the world's largest science competition for high school students.
This award came from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, or NIDA, part of the NIH. Her work was done in a lab at the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine.
Her mentor says she can not only do the technical work, but also understands how to interpret the results.
"She does that very well, so I was happily surprised, but also I knew she had the capability to win such a prize," said Dr. Alexandra Noel, Anusha's mentor and a researcher at LSU SVM in the Department of Comparative Biomedical Sciences.
Anusha's work is very timely, as hookah bars are popping up and more and more young people believe that smoking flavored tobacco through water pipes is safer than cigarettes.
"There are high school and college kids who will tell you this is more or less a clean way to have smoking, and the information she has gotten, that other people are getting, says that that may not be the case. There's a good chance it's not be the case," said Dr. Arthur Penn, a professor at LSU SVM.
What Anusha's award winning study found was that human cheek cells, in the petri dish, exposed to the particles from hookah smoke, do show several specific changes.
"For the genes I studied, any kind of change can be harmful," Zaman said.
Both of her parents are scientists too and now get to watch her go to the NIH and present her findings in July to 30 of the top addiction scientists at the federal level, including the director of NIDA.
"I'm more excited than nervous," Anusha siad. "So yeah, I'm just really excited to like meet all these scientists."