After I visit Keystone School, I’m always plagued by the fact that I wasted my high school career curfew-dodging, boy-impressing, and seeing if I could get pizza delivered to the car I had parked on the baseball field.

When I interviewed seniors Chris Zhu, Katie Mansfield, and Nabil Kapasi, they were fresh off their national Academic WorldQuest championship. Teammate Emily Ye was missing from the interview, because she was at a playoff game with the varsity softball team. At the table with us was sophomore Nia Clements, recently returned from the White House Science Fair, where she had presented her preliminary research into a possible cure for some types of cancer.

“Cancers that share the TMPR7 ion channel,” she explains.

Right. Those cancers.

The students are engaging and articulate, it always catches me off guard when they suddenly use terminology I have to covertly look up on my iPhone.

Clements has tested the effects of East Indian sandalwood oil on cancer at the cellular level, but she would really like to get to the molecular level, she says.

One major hurdle will soon be out of her way. At 16, she will finally be old enough to use university labs if she needs to.

Nia Clements researches cancer and is a sophomore at Keystone School. Photo by Scott Ball.
Nia Clements researches cancer and is a sophomore at Keystone School. Photo by Scott Ball.

When Clements began her research at age 13, Dr. April Risinger at UT Health Science Center (UTHSCSA) ran the labs according to Clements’s specifications, since the middle schooler wasn’t allowed inside the facility. The results were encouraging. 

“(Sandalwood oil) not only inhibited, but killed the cells at low concentrations,” said Clements.

Next she wanted to study the mechanics of how the sandalwood oil worked. Still too young for UTSCSA’s facilities, she found Cytocentrics, Inc., a private research facility that welcomed her in to conduct her research with their automated patch clamping technology to isolate and study single cells.

There she was able to track the effects of sandalwood oil on the TMPR7 ion pathway, demonstrating that the common essential oil does in fact open up pathways that could inhibit cancer growth and possibly allow for its destruction.

These were the findings that she took to the White House Science Fair.

Instead of competing for ribbons, the 38 brilliant young scientists at the White House Science Fair spent the day talking to their peers, as well as icons like Bill Nye, Adam Savage, Sir Francis Collins, and President Barack Obama about their research. Clements said it was refreshing to talk to people who could track with her research, and weren’t there to hear a formal defense.

Such are the sentiments of many scientists, I’m told.

She was a even little overwhelmed by the attention. When she asked Savage if she could take a picture with him, he told her that it should be the other way around.

“At the White House it was like we were the showcase,” said Clements.

Clements doesn’t mention it herself, but she was a showcase among showcases. Keystone principal Brian Yager said that Nye and Savage both referred, via Twitter, to her work as the most impressive project at the fair. Vice President Joe Biden was so intrigued that he invited Clements to be his guest of honor at the Cancer symposium in New Orleans.

Joe Biden takes a selfie with Keystone sophomore and cancer-researcher Nia Clements. courtesy photo
Joe Biden takes a selfie with Keystone sophomore and cancer-researcher Nia Clements. courtesy photo

Like Biden, who lost his son to brain cancer in 2015, Clements’s drive to find a cure is personal. At age 11 she lost her grandfather to gastric cancer in a rapid two-month decline. It was that profound loss that put her on the path to research. A short path. She had her hypothesis within two years.

Now that she has seen the mechanics of the ion pathways at a cellular level, Clements hopes that next she can test sandalwood oils effectiveness on other kinds of cancers (those with the TMPR7 ion pathway, she reminds me), as well as possible preventative capabilities. She also wants to see how the interaction works on the molecular level to possibly extend uses even further.

Like many of the kids at Keystone, the students I interviewed are highly self-motivated learners and explorers. In an environment of like-minded peers, there seems to be no limit to what they can do.

The Academic WorldQuest champions have seen their goal through to completion. 

I met the WorldQuest team last year when, after winning the Regional Academic WorldQuest, they went on to take second place at the national competition in Washington DC for the second year in a row. In that interview they pitched a perfect high school competition story, vowing to win the championship their senior year.

While I was rooting for them, I can’t say I held my breath. Those stories are hard to come by, and by their own account, the national championship nearly slipped their grasp a final time.

“It was very dramatic!” said Mansfield.

They shared a story of mounting tension, going into tie breaker rounds with St. Edwards School from Palm Beach, Fla., and eventually a sudden death round. The question that would determine their fate: name the five country candidates for EU membership.

They confess they were stumped.

At this point in the story, three sets of teenage eyes look at me, the professional adult, as though I would rattle off the answers they should have known.

Meanwhile I’m proud of myself for thinking (silently), “Isn’t one of them Turkey?”

“Well, I mean, obviously we knew Turkey,” said whichever of the team members was reading my mind.

They then tell the story of deliberating between Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia…figuring “it had to be some of the Balkans…but which ones?!”

How many times a day do you find yourself trying to sort out your Balkans?

The World Affairs Councils of America’s Academic WorldQuest requires far more global policy and issue awareness than most people ever possess. In preparation, contestants research topics like “Privacy in the Digital Age” and “The Sultanate of Oman,” two of this year’s ten categories.

They made their hyper-educated guesses and waited (in case you are curious: the correct answers are Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Turkey, according to the European Commission website). They were sure they had missed their championship.

They had not.

Keystone School's Academic WorldQuest trophy. Photo by Scott Ball
Keystone School’s Academic WorldQuest trophy. Photo by Scott Ball

The announcement of the winner was emotional. A couple of the teammates even cried (I won’t say which). After that, they said, they just walked around Washington D.C. a little bit aimlessly, enjoying the afterglow.

“It was a Hollywood ending,” said Kapasi.

It was that indeed, except that usually those movies are about football.

One of the most encouraging parts of my job as an education reporter is that some of the hype, and fanfare that used to be reserved for varsity athletics is now going toward celebrating these kids as well: future policymakers and cancer researchers. Not that they can’t be both, as Ye was proving by her absence.

All three team members at the interview said that they intended to incorporate some element of international studies into their college careers. Zhu said he felt like the poetic win after years of hard work gave him validation to begin his life as a global citizen. Just to begin.

“Maybe I’m kind of there-ish,” said Zhu.

“There-Ish” implies the idea of constant growth I heard throughout the interview. They are proud of where they are, as they should be, but already looking forward to the chance to expand their scope.

Top image: Katie Mansfield, Chris Zhu, and Nabil Kapasi with their Academic WorldQuest trophy. Photo by Scott Ball

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Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog,, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.