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High School Students Publish a Paper on Plant Physiology in a Notable Journal

high schoolers from chile doing plant experiments
The students doing the experiments. Photos by Abraham Martínez Gutiérrez, official photographer of the high school.

— Written by Tim Marzullo —

In an article we previously published in June 2022 about our scientific paper that dealt with play behavior in fish, I concluded at the end of the article:

I think it is possible for novices and high school students to publish papers (and it is the dream and goal of our team)… That is why we are planning an experiment. We want to publish with a school in Santiago, Chile, collaborating with second and third year high school students. We are collecting data on electrical signals in plants… If it works, we will tell you…

Dear readers, 21 months after writing this, the day has arrived. We did it! Our paper recently appeared in the academic journal “Plant Signaling and Behavior” about our experiments in electrophysiology in plants, with 5 high school students as the first authors. You can read the paper here.

A library of electrophysiological responses in plants - a model of transversal education and open science
The beginning of the published paper, with high school students in the front line

Electrical signals in plants? What? Yes, it is understudied and often misunderstood, but plants do have signals similar to the electrical signals we have in our hearts, muscles, and brain. However, they are much slower (1,000-15,000 times slower). But what are they for? In the famous examples of the venus flytrap and the sensitive mimosa, the electrical signals coordinate their fast movements, but electrical signals also exist in plants that do not move quickly, such as tomatoes, chili peppers, basil, etc.

One of the functions of electrical signals in plants is as an alarm signal. For example, if a herbivore is eating a plant, an electrical signal passes through the branches saying “we are under attack” and the plant can synthesize bitter compounds so that the leaves taste bitter. A plant cannot escape when under attack, and it has the problem that it is “stuck in place forever” (i.e., it cannot run away from a threat, or fight physically), but there are protection systems and defenses (thorns, poisons, production of bitter compounds, etc.).

Dear reader, the day has arrived. We did it! Our paper about our experiments in electrophysiology in plants recently appeared in the academic journal “Plant Signaling and Behavior,” with 5 high school students as the first authors.

As electrophysiology in plants is understudied, we wanted to further investigate electrical signals in plants that do not necessarily move rapidly. And with that idea, we began to work on an ambitious project with the (high school) Colegio Alberto Blest Gana (CABG) in San Ramón, Santiago.

But before discussing the results, we must give a little more context about the scientific publication process.


Meet us after school for Cockroach Club

You never know what might capture a students’ attention and passion… Maybe the recent photo of a black hole inspires a student to learn about astrophysics, or maybe an experiment involving cockroaches inspires a student to want to learn more about neuroscience!

Recently, we heard word from two graduating high school seniors in Ohio who started a “Cockroach Club.” This after-school club is dedicated to neuroscience and invertebrate electrophysiology! Two students, Emma and Krista, were introduced to neuroscience in one of their PLTW classes with the Neuron SpikerBox, Roboroach, The Claw, and the Human-Human Interface.

Emma and Krista were fascinated by the labs, and wanted to learn more! But, as need not be said, the PLTW curriculum doesn’t leave a lot of room for digression: So, they started an after-school club to pursue Neuroscience! Enough from me though, let’s hear about it in their words.

From Krista, 12th grade;
Passionate about art, music, and biology.

Cockroach club is a student-led learning group we put together following the ever-increasing amount of questions we had for my biology teacher. She prompted us to get together after school to talk about science and biology, and she also suggested we take a look at a cool kit she had made by Backyard Brains where we could create and control a cyborg cockroach (The Roboroach). Ever since then, we’ve had numerous club meetings and we have all learned a lot about science as well as teamwork!

When I first saw the cockroaches, I wasn’t too fond of them. They were little bugs that moved a little too fast for me. After our many experiments and working with the insects for so long, I have taken a liking to them. I help feed and care for the roaches from time to time. We’ve even given a few of them names. They’re pretty cool, but I still refuse to touch them myself (I let other members of the club handle them!)

Although we have learned a bit about neuroscience in school, the Roboroach was one of the first times I was able to see it in action, along with the human to human interface. I knew that neuroscience was super interesting and has a lot of potential, but after seeing it up close and personal, my curiosity and interest in the field has definitely increased.

This was my senior year, and I was not planning on pursuing neuroscience or engineering, but cockroach club and PLTW have helped me learn about a lot of different topics in science and biology fields. They not only exposed me to an extensive number of topics but also encouraged my love for science and biology. Cockroach club and PLTW allowed me to cultivate my curiosity and ask more questions than I ever have.

From Emma, 12th grade;
Passionate about dancing, biology, art, reading/writing.

Cockroach club allows us to use the science equipment available in class for personal projects and other things. For example, we can mount slides with things we want to look at under a microscope but that aren’t relevant to in-class topics. Our teacher supervises all of our work so that we do things safely and correctly.

The cockroaches made me a bit uncomfortable at first. But, as with most things in biology, after I learned a little more about their biology, saw them more often, and accidentally touched them a couple times, I was okay with handling them. Not before initial anesthesia though; I’m not afraid of the roaches, but I am afraid of losing them!

In class, the more mechanical parts of neuroscience aren’t discussed as in-depth, so using neuroscience technology in tandem with the body’s nervous system was something I hadn’t thought about until we started using the tech in cockroach club.

One quick experiment we came up with was using the human-to-human interface on a fellow student’s eyelid as opposed to on his arm (with his consent and complete knowledge) and it worked out well. We were able to twitch his eyelids shut with another student’s arm.

I am graduating this year too, and I’m still super undecided about everything because of how far apart my interests are from one another but in general, PLTW and Cockroach Club combined have inspired me to look towards the sciences for my future.

Cockroach Club’s Future

With many members of Cockroach Club graduating, the club’s advisor and the remaining members are working to rally interest for the club for next year. The goal is to continue to offer the opportunity for students to pursue their personal science interests in the club, but perhaps the pursuit of the interests could turn into formal research projects! We’ll be sure to keep you updated of how this fantastic example of student-driven learning continues next year!


Last year, Sophia, 8, a young entomologist, was being bullied at school because of her excitement for and interest in bugs and science. Now, just one year later, she has been published as a junior author in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America!
With a craving which couldn’t be curbed to capture, observe, befriend, and release as many insects as possible, Sophia, our intrepid grade-school scientist, continued to pursue the science which interested her, despite the fact that it was singling her out at school.

To encourage Sophia, her mother made a plea online for entomologists and woman scientists to send encouragement and support to Sophia so she could see a future in her passion and not be discouraged by how the other students at school treated her for her excitement.

The effect was immediate. There was an outpouring of encouragement from scientists all around the world. Sophia was suddenly surrounded by supporters who were sharing their own research with her and encouraging her to continue studying and observing her favorite insects. Many even sent Sophia pictures of their own bugs and research and invited her and her mother to come out and visit their labs!

This viral sensation, when revealed at school, markedly changed how the other students viewed Sophia’s excitement for insects.

In her words, “The kids in my school, whenever they find a bug they come and tell me and say “Sophia, Sophia, we found a bug!” After I was famous, sometimes people in my town would come up and say,“Hi, you’re Sophia the Bug Girl!” and it makes me feel good.” This is a prime example of the importance of science education and awareness, and an example of the mission at the heart of our company.

Sophia and her bug friends

I suspect that in Sophia’s case, like many others, it wasn’t out of cruelty that other students teased her, but out of a lack of understanding. But once Sophia’s story went viral, Sophia’s interest in bugs was validated. Far from some weird hobby, it became clear that her passion for entomology was actually a very celebrated and important pursuit.

Sophia’s story inspires us because our neuroscience kits and experiments are made with the hope that they reach the hands of young, passionate scientists like her, who, with a thirst for knowledge, are able to perform science experiments and make meaningful discoveries. And, like Sophia, our work stems from an appreciation of insects, and thus we know what it’s like to be called “bug people!” We’re often first recognized by the cockroach emblazoned on our T-Shirts, and we see this distinction as recognition and validation of our work! We have a lot to learn about ourselves from insects, evidenced in our own research and in the research of many others!

Our favorite insect, you might have guessed, is the cockroach. We like them because they are hardy, large, easy to care for, and are often given a bad rep in popular media. We’ve done what we can to flip the script, to prove that cockroaches, like any more socially acceptable insect, are not inherently dirty or gross; rather, they are beautiful bugs that offer us an opportunity to learn about and teach neuroscience!

This one was kind enough to pose for me on my T-Shirt for a quick glamour shot! (Not shown, 30 attempts with motion blur as the cockroach skittered around…)


Often, students react with cries of “gross!” when we show them the cockroaches, but before long they begin to realize just how cool and interesting these bugs are. We take care of our cockroaches and encourage others to do the same, returning them to their colonies after performing experiments so they can continue to romp around their egg-carton mazes and chow cockroach kibble in peace.

We’re not sure how Sophia feels about cockroaches, but in her published paper she proclaims, “My favorite bugs are snails, slugs, and caterpillars, but my favorite one of all is grasshoppers. Last year in the fall I had a best bug friend and his name was Hoppers.”

In fact, you may recall one of our own student research fellows was also recently published for a paper she wrote on grasshoppers! Dieu My, our fellow, created an experiment to learn about the grasshopper’s nervous system.

In the experiment, an iPad is used to create a dot which appears to come rushing at the grasshopper from some distance away, simulating a looming or approaching object. When the grasshopper sees the dot fast approaching, it sends “flight” signals to its legs which, in nature, would cause it to quickly jump away.

An illustration from Dieu My’s publication detailing the grasshopper’s DCMD

With this prep, Dieu My was able to record from this part of the Grasshopper’s nervous system, called the Descending Contralateral Motion Detector (DCMD), to better understand how fast and how effective this reflex is. Then, after the experiment, the grasshoppers are released back into the wild!

Dieu My and her Grasshopper

Just as we were excited about Dieu My’s first publication, we are also excited about Sophia’s first publication! The paper Sophia contributed to was written in response to the viral effect of Sophia’s story. Morgan D. Jackson of University of Guelph, Ontario, authored the article with Sophia’s help. The focus was on the importance of scientific communication and the effect that social media can have on bringing positive awareness to the field. Tracking the story from initial tweet to viral impact, the paper seeks to identify just what made Sophia’s story and appeal so compelling. It concludes that Sophia’s story afforded many scientists a chance to “spread their influence and enthusiasm across the globe and into the homes of hundreds of people who may have felt similarly alone or ostracized.”

We hope that this young scientist keeps on pursuing whatever interests her, no matter what other people think. If she continues to be interested in bugs, great! But if she decides to become a computer scientist, an engineer, a chemist, a biologist, or whatever else might catch her interest as she grows and learns more about other fields, we hope that she is successful and has no lack of encouragement or support.

This young love for science is what inspires us to continue to create tools and experiments for young people to begin similarly pursuing their interests. If you are a young scientist, the parent of a young scientist, or know a young scientist, we’d love to hear from you! Interested specifically in neuroscience or not, our field is one which is made strong by community and support systems. Scientists succeed together, feel free to send us your story at and we’ll do what we can to encourage and support you!

We first heard about this story via an article on Science Alert and found a great photographic write-up of the saga on Today. And finally, here is Sophia’s published paper.