The future in focus: High School Topical Review in Sleep Science Contest

Feb. 15, 2011
By Thomas M. Heffron

“A great flame follows a little spark,” the Italian poet Dante wrote hundreds of years ago. For 18-year-old Elyssa Schlossberg, that spark came in 2008 when she was a high school sophomore.  While flipping through the pages of the October 2008 issue of Popular Science, she came across a list of five “Bizarre Sleep Disorders.”

Intrigued by the description of sleep paralysis, Schlossberg began to read more about sleep disorders and eventually selected narcolepsy as her topic of interest for a three-year science research program at her school, Milken Community High School in Los Angeles, Calif.  One year later, her teacher and research mentor, Roger Kassebaum, gave her a flier that he had received from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine about the AASM’s new High School Topical Review in Sleep Science Contest.

“I was researching narcolepsy, and he thought the contest would be right up my alley,” said Schlossberg.

One of about 90 high school juniors and seniors who entered the contest, she prepared and submitted the paper, “Hypocretin: an alternative theory regarding its function in the sleep-wake cycle and its role in narcolepsy.”

Schlossberg was selected as a co-winner, along with Apryl Jimenez of Ossining High School in Ossining, N.Y., who submitted the paper, “Temperature and the regulation of the sleep wake cycle: a look at its relationship and considering its role in the performance of adolescents.” All of the contest entries were published online in conjunction with the August 2010 issue of the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.

In addition to winning a U.S. savings bond as a scholarship award, Schlossberg and Jimenez received a trip to SLEEP 2010 in San Antonio, Texas, where they were recognized during the AASM General Membership Meeting on Monday, June 7.  Despite the fact that she had to spend time at her hotel working on a final paper for school and had two final exams to take when she returned home, Schlossberg made the most of her day at the meeting.

She had contacted Dr. Emmanuel Mignot in advance and was able to meet with him for breakfast, and later that afternoon she attended the symposium, “Advances in the Basic Science and Clinical Understanding of Narcolepsy,” which was chaired by Dr. Thomas Scammell.

“It was such a great opportunity and experience for me,” she said.  “It was so interesting to be a witness to the real cutting-edge research that was presented.”

The presentations also provided another spark, giving Schlossberg an idea for a new project to undertake. Currently she is following up on the idea by developing a survey for narcolepsy patients.

Schlossberg is exactly the type of student that 2009 – 2010 AASM President Dr. Clete Kushida had in mind when he initiated the contest.

“One of my priorities as president was expanding educational opportunities for not only fellows and medical students but also high school students interested in the science of sleep,” Kushida noted at the AASM General Membership Meeting before presenting Schlossberg’s award. “It is my hope that exposure to our field early on will engage these students as they pursue their academic goals.”

As a senior, Schlossberg’s academic goals include deciding where to attend college next year and, ultimately, going on to medical school. Wherever she goes, her interest in sleep disorders is sure to go with her: What began as a spark is now a flame that will not be easily extinguished.

“I definitely find the sleep disorders really interesting,” she said. “I’m not going to throw this experience aside after high school.”

In 2011 the second cycle of the contest is being administered by the American Sleep Medicine Foundation.  The AASM also is developing lesson plans for teachers and organizing a workshop for educators to help them bring sleep into the classroom.