NAVS Alumni Spotlight: ISEF Humane Science Award Recipient Ralph Lawton

This week’s Science First “NAVS Alumni Spotlight” catches up with Ralph Lawton, recipient of the NAVS Humane Science Award at the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) in 2015 and 2016.

ISEF is the world’s largest pre-college science competition, and NAVS has been presenting our Humane Science Award there since 2002 to encourage young students to integrate innovation and discovery with ethics and respect for animals when conducting scientific research.

We recently had the opportunity to touch base with Ralph and ask him to reflect upon the research he conducted as a high school student.

“I actually won the Humane Science Award twice! If I remember correctly, I received 2nd place in 2015 and 1st in 2016, both for related projects on the toxicological effects of electronic cigarettes,” Ralph noted. “Inspired by friends I had who were using e-cigarettes, I examined the effects of e-cigarettes on [human] lung cells with various assays.”

Ralph’s work, which involved the development of a model designed to mimic the air-liquid interface of the human lung environment, did indeed catch the attention of the NAVS Special Award judges two years in a row. His results showed that e-cigarettes and traditional cigarettes both had negative effects on human lung cells, and that for e-cigarettes, the severity of the effect depended on the flavor of the cigarette and the e-cigarette chamber voltage.

“Since I was initially inspired by my friends,” Ralph said, “I was looking for ways to simulate exposure in human cells. At the time, I thought it would be more accurate, and an environment that would allow me to control more variables and investigate more questions without the limitations of using animals.”

Ralph’s work was ultimately published in a peer-reviewed journal and cited by a variety of news outlets and in major policy documents by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Public Health England.

Ralph offered the following advice to students who are interested in humane scientific research: “I think that humane science is simply the better way to do science on many levels. From a purely scientific standpoint, being able to use alternative models for the lung enabled me to better control my environment and exposure, but also just let me run a lot more samples and ask a lot more questions. I was able to do more science, better satisfy my own curiosity, and ultimately contribute more to our knowledge of how e-cigarettes affected the body because of the model system that I chose.”

He also shared his gratitude for the role that NAVS played in supporting his research. “As a high schooler, my experiences with research and ISEF were incredibly formative,” he noted. “I’m so grateful for organizations like NAVS that were committed to encouraging people like me to believe that we really could do innovative, novel work that mattered. Without the science fair, I’m not sure my passions for research and science would have blossomed to where they are today.”

NAVS wishes Ralph success with the next phase of his educational journey—applying to graduate and medical schools. We are thankful for his efforts to advance science without harming animals and are honored to count him among the growing number of ISEF Humane Science Award recipients.

Help NAVS continue supporting innovations in smarter science—such as Ralph’s—that advance the discovery and use of human-relevant solutions without the use of harmful, flawed and costly animal experiments by donating here.