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High school students are taking their Pitt summer projects to a big science stage

Two high school students hold certificates beside their mentors

This past summer, high schoolers immersed themselves in the science of public health at a monthlong program hosted at Pitt’s School of Public Health. Next month, two of those students will dive even deeper when they present their research at one of the foremost scientific meetings in behavioral medicine.

Eleventh graders Natalia Connor and Julian Whaley Miller — graduates of the school’s 2023 Public Health Science Academy — will present their study results on the use of social media to market e-cigarettes and other vaping devices to youth at the 2024 annual meeting Society of Behavioral Medicine, to be held March 13-16 in Philadelphia. They will be joined by their academy mentors, Beth Hoffman and Jaime Sidani, both assistant professors of behavioral and community health sciences in the School of Public Health.

“I was so impressed with Natalia and Julian’s eagerness to work on this project and so happy that their hard work paid off,” said Hoffman, who also serves as co-director of the academy. “Their project was part of a larger research study looking at the marketing of e-cigarettes in youth-oriented social media, so their input as both researchers and young people was tremendously valuable.”

Under the guidance of Hoffman and Sidani, Connor and Whaley Miller analyzed 300 YouTube “shorts” — videos less than a minute in length — for content related to vaping devices. Of these, 89% promoted the use of these electronic nicotine delivery systems. They featured colorful devices and other content that would increase their appeal to youth, like individuals unboxing and using the devices. Only 6% of the video shorts included themes that encouraged the user to quit, and just 4% and 1% mentioned the negative health effects and dangers of addiction, respectively.

The research was part of a larger National Institutes of Health-funded project awarded to Sidani to examine nicotine and tobacco misinformation on social media. 

“Working with Natalia and Julian was a great experience for my entire research team,” Sidani said. The students, she noted, “helped us to hone some of our research questions. We were also excited to take a step back while they successfully navigated their own project with gentle guidance and are thrilled with their success.”

Connor was especially compelled by the team’s research topic. “Like all other teenagers, I love social media, so the idea of a project focused on how social media impacts youth was very appealing to me,” she said.

Although she wasn’t certain what public health was before she decided to apply to the academy, Connor now says she can imagine herself pursuing public health as a career. She plans to apply to Pitt’s Bachelor of Science in Public Health program once she graduates from Allderdice High School.

Whaley Miller, who attends the Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy, is interested in studying microbiology and found the project equally engaging. “It was definitely a good experience and broadened my horizons,” he said.

“We couldn’t ask for better ambassadors for the Public Health Science Academy than Natalia and Julian,” says Hannah Covert, co-director of the academy and research assistant professor in the School of Public Health. “Their interest and commitment to research surpassed all our expectations, and it’s really exciting they will present the project results with the rest of research team.”

Connor seconds that. “Youth can make an impact. We’re as curious and committed as anyone else and our participation is important.”

In addition to Covert and Hoffman, the Public Health Science Academy is co-directed by Toni Deslouches, assistant professor of environmental and occupational health. It was founded by Maureen Lichtveld, dean of the School of Public Health, with funding in 2023 from The Grable Foundation and other donors.


— Clare Collins