A science whiz, a professional ballet dancer, a born storyteller, a basketball star, and four others talk about their lives and their hopes for the future
by Jennifer Wehunt
Outside, it’s a glorious June day, full of the possibilities promised in the second week of summer break. Inside, it’s a different story—at least at first glance. Here, in the back room of a warren of labs on the grounds of the Chicago Botanic Garden, Kassandra Davis is perched on a stool, eyeing with grave concentration a dozen miniature test tubes. She fills a dropper with solution before carefully measuring out the liquid. This is no time for daydreaming; Davis is prepping the tubes—each holding the tiniest crumb of a leaf from the Aster genus of plants—for DNA testing, and lab protocol instructs her every move. “The one thing I don’t want to do is mess up,” she says. “Failure is not an option.”
For Davis, a senior at Young Women’s Leadership Charter School on the South Side, spending summer inside is no big loss; the lab itself opens up a world of opportunities. She’s a budding botanist with an interest in science that stretches back to eighth grade, when she first got involved with Project Exploration, a nonprofit that sponsors science programs for minority youth. What started as a casual afterschool activity became a passion following her freshman year, when Davis joined a weeklong trip to Yellowstone National Park. There, amid the sagebrush, she started thinking about how plants could be put to use. “Sagebrush lives through harsh winters and harsh summers,” she explains. “It has to have some very strong properties to live in such a climate.” If the plant could survive Yellowstone, maybe it had other properties. Even medicinal properties.
The idea stuck with her, and the following summer Davis sought out an internship at Chicago Botanic Garden. While there studying plant DNA, something clicked. “I loved it. Loved it,” she says. This past summer she returned to the garden; next up is college and then, no small feat, saving lives. “My mom has high blood pressure; my sister has lupus,” says Davis, who is considering drug research as a potential career path. “Our ancestors used plants as medicine. We can still use them today.”
Photograph by Ryan Robinson