Teen Youngest Person in History of IDWeek to Present

Marcia Frellick

October 07, 2018


Devyn Stek at IDWeek 2018. IDWeek photo

SAN FRANCISCO — Thirteen-year old Devyn Stek, from Pottstown, Pennsylvania, made history here at IDWeek 2018 as the youngest person ever to present at the conference.

Her work, which was originally her seventh-grade science project at St. Teresa of Calcutta Education Center in Schwenksville, Pennsylvania, is an environmental surveillance study of Toxocara (roundworm) contamination levels in selected parks in Montgomery County. The abstract will be published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases after the conference.

The idea for the project came when Stek and her family got their three cats — all strays — dewormed.

"The veterinarian first introduced me to roundworm and all types of parasitic worms. That's when I got into microbiology," she explained. "I did some research and found out that you can isolate Toxocara from soil. I just kept going further with it."

"I didn't know what to expect because the testing had never been done in Pennsylvania," she added.

About 13.9% of people in the United States have antibodies to Toxocara. "This suggests that tens of millions of Americans may have been exposed to the Toxocara parasite," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. And often, people don't know they have been exposed.

Stek collected six soil samples at each of six different parks in the county. She looked at the parasitic worms that grow in the intestines of dogs and cats and studied the prevalence of eggs under a microscope. Overall, 35 of the 36 samples tested positive for Toxocara eggs, although the level of contamination varied widely by park and sample. The most contaminated spots were around dog parks and places pets found food or relieved themselves.

Stek has shared her results with some of the parks and hopes that the findings will result in better messaging about the value of frequent hand-washing, she told Medscape Medical News.

She also hopes to educate people about toxocariasis — which can cause eye, lung, heart, and neurologic damage in humans — and the necessity of getting pets dewormed.

Science Teacher "Thrilled"

Devyn is the kind of student science teachers hope for every year, said Dave Dusza, Stek's science teacher at St. Teresa.

"I am so very proud of what Devyn has done," he told Medscape Medical News. "When Devyn came to me about her topic, I was thrilled that she was going to do something on this scale. After the school science fair, she advanced to the Montgomery County science fair. She won a prize there and was invited to speak at Merck on her findings."

Stek's father, Jon, is a medical writer for Merck vaccines, and his father was a Navy doctor who did work with parasitic worms. Both men have presented at IDWeek in the past, which is how Stek set her sights on this conference.

She found out she was accepted when her mom got the invitation confirmation in June and told her, "You're going to San Francisco." Much dancing and shouting followed, her dad said.

No other presenter at IDWeek has ever come close in age, said Andrew Pavia, MD, IDWeek cochair for the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA).

Youngest by a Longshot

"We've definitely had projects submitted with college students on the author list, but I'm not sure we've had someone who hadn't started medical school present here before," Pavia told Medscape Medical News.

He said that when the work was first reviewed by experts looking at the public health abstracts, they were impressed because of the content and public interest and gave it a high score.

"Then they noticed there were no physicians on it," he said. A member of the review group realized Stek's grade level and called her home to verify that she was indeed the person who had done the research.

Her father confirmed that Devyn had conceived and designed the project, conducted the research, and did all the analysis working with a statistician. He said his contribution was providing the microscope at home so she didn't have to do outside lab work and providing poster templates.

When the chairs of the meeting received the abstract, said Pavia, and "we were very excited by the newsworthiness of the subject and, more than anything, about how this brought a young person into the field, doing really good science."

IDSA and the conference's partner societies have actively been trying to reach out to younger researchers, he added.

"To be honest, we thought we just had to reach medical students and, perhaps, people finishing up their college careers. We've got to rethink that now," he told Medscape Medical News. "This raises a whole new opportunity to reach even younger students and we need to figure out what to do with that."

There is broad concern that some of the best young technical minds get swept into areas other than medicine, he explained.

"We've got to get people excited about the contributions they can make and the opportunities and the fun of the science, and change the perception that it's all about starting a company and making your first billion," he said.

Devyn Stek meets NASA astronaut Kate Rubins, PhD, shortly after Rubins delivered the keynote address at IDWeek 2018. IDWeek photo

Stek is already excited about the future of her work and her future in general. She said she plans to keep testing the 36 samples to see if the prevalence of Toxocara is affected by the seasons. This will be next year's science project and, she hopes, the subject of her presentation at IDWeek 2019. Stek plans to submit the completed paper on her current work to a journal for publication.

When she's not studying, she splits her time between Girl Scouts, swimming, soccer, dance, church activities, and being president of her school's student council.

As for career plans, "anything in science would be great," said Stek. But first she has to choose her high school; she has four options.

She also said she knows what she won't be doing: studying Guinea worm disease. In her sampling of IDWeek sessions, she saw just enough to know that not all work with worms suits her.

"They're really gross," she said.

Devyn and Jon Stek, Dusza, and Pavia have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

IDWeek 2018: Poster 438. Presented October 4, 2018.

Follow Medscape on Twitter @Medscape and Marcia Frellick @mfrellick


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