Steven Castellano
Student Scientist, High Technology High School

Big Think Interview With Steven Castellano

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Steven Castellano

Big Think extends a warm thank you to Cogito and the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University for facilitating this interview.

Steven Castellano is a senior at High Technology High School in Lincroft, New Jersey, and is one of Big Think's "10 under 25" young experts.

At High Tech, he was the vice-president of the Key Club, vice-president of the National Honor Society, and a member of the senior class council. He also served as the secretary for the New Jersey state Technology Student Association that works to promote technological literacy in schools throughout the country. He has developed a deep interest in behavioral neuroscience research throughout high school and has worked on projects investigating the effects of acupressure on alertness and visual attention skills.

His research has won first prize in the MIT THINK competition, the Delaware Valley Science Fair, the Jersey Shore Science Fair, and the New Jersey Academy of Science. In addition, Steven has been named an Intel Science Talent Search semifinalist and has presented his research to the American Junior Academy of Science division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Human Factors and Ergonomics division of the Federal Aviation Administration, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and the Armed Forces Communications Electronics Association. Most recently, his research has been published in Imagine magazine.

In 2009, Steven and his teammates won $20,000 in the 2009 Moody's Mega Math Challenge, an applied mathematics competition sponsored by the Moody's Foundation and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics. During the challenge, his team had 14 hours to analyze and submit a paper on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The team was also featured on Bloomberg Radio's Taking Stock with Pimm Fox and Karen Moscow. His paper and presentation can be viewed at 2009 Winning Papers.

After graduating from High Tech, Steven plans to attend Columbia College of Columbia University to study neuroscience and physics.


Question: What is acupressure and how is it different from acupuncture?

Steven Castellano: Acupressure is, it refers to I guess the gentle massaging of specific target points in the body, and you could kind of do a 90 degree angle for like three minutes a day. It's what I do in my study. So, it's a slow form of massaging and what it's supposed to do is, I guess the theory behind acupressure, there's Eastern and Western theories. The Eastern theory is that it regulates the flow of chi-it's an internal energy, that kind of flows through the body and it's suppose to relieve pain and restore balance to the body. Whereas, I guess in the more western theory is that, they have the gate-control theory and if we have a pain sensation then rubbing it or itching it you're sending another sensation down similar nerves and then the second sensation might override the first sensation. So, I mean, there's different theories on and how it actually works, it's mainly for pain relief.

I believe the second part of that question was, ‘how was it different from acupuncture?' It's not too different. Acupuncture uses needles, it's basically the same target locations. Acupuncture is probably not minimal risk, whereas in acupressure you're just massaging the body, so it's a little gentler. Acupuncture's effects are said to be more exaggerated, so I guess if you want to have more full experience you go to acupuncture specialist and get the needles.

Question: What is chi?

Steven Castellano: I think it's a hard word to define. It's generally just a sense of balance. I feel it's an internal energy source that Easterners kind of refer to. So when they say chi, I guess they mean energy in the body. It's a more spiritual term I feel. So I guess that would be me general, loose, definition for it.

Question: What was your goal with the acupressure project?

Steven Castellano: So with my project basically it was focusing on alertness and I think of the student, the tired student, who is trying to stay awake in class or driving while trying to stay awake, or the tired worker, and how do you increase alertness? So I was looking at different ways to increase alertness, and there's caffeine, but caffeine is generally assumed to have negative side effects. I think its five hundred milligrams taken daily can increase heart rates, blood pressure, et cetera. So, that's not necessarily the ideal solution for increasing alertness and also it's known to be addictive and have diminishing returns.

So then I looked at those neurofeedback devices, and there is something called the Peak Achievement Trainer, and it's a neurofeedback device that supposedly works very well at regulating alertness-increasing or decreasing it-but that's very expensive, it's several thousand dollars, only sold to licensed professionals and it's not very accessible, it's a big device.

So after looking into the problem for a while, I came across an article about acupressure and, in eastern theories, it's been said maybe to regulate alertness-acupressure's basically said to do a lot-as I said it's mainly for pain relief, but there's a lot of anecdotes about how acupressure can just regulate a whole bunch of body rhythms. So there wasn't too much research on it, as I dug deeper I found one research article, pretty recently, University of Michigan and they had subjects apply acupressure for one day, stimulation versus relaxation, and subjects that applied acupressure to what is known as ‘stimulation areas' so that they are more alert during what was supposed to be a boring lecture. So that was a positive sign for acupressure.

So what I did in my specific study was...I wanted to take a more quantitative analysis than a self-rating system. So I developed what are known as Enumeration Tasks, and during these tasks, there's a black screen and every ten seconds one to twelve white squares flash on the monitor and then, after that, they flash for 0.3 seconds and after that there's a 0.1 second white screen, just to clear the image from the retina, and subjects would write down how many squares they saw. So this is to determine what's known as magnocellular processing. It's basically the quick visual reflexes that one has. So I did that enumeration task and then after ten more seconds another set of white squares were flashed and this would repeat until all combinations of from one to twelve whites flashed. And I had 36 subjects take this test and then I would score the subjects based on how many they got right and [ex and cons] where they were incorrect on like a data acquisition table and then I gave them a total score. So then this enabled me to make three subject groups, where I was able to pair them so that each subject group had the same initial scores in terms of visual attention, like the same number of correct, and also I was able to pair them so that there was six males, six females in each group.

So I had three groups, one that was attended to by stimulation acupressure, one for relaxation acupressure, and one for no acupressure. And, as I said, the stimulation acupressure or the relaxation acupressure, it's a slow firm massaging with these two fingers at a ninety-degree angle to the target area for three minutes and there's five areas, so that's 15 minutes each day. It's not too much of a time commitment, but definitely a time commitment that I appreciate from the subjects. And, after the subjects did this for fourteen days, I gave all the subjects the same, not the same, another enumeration task, they all had the same one but it was a different one. And then, after another fourteen days, I gave them a third enumeration task. So during these tasks, in the stimulation acupressure group, the scores increased between days zero and fourteen. There was a statistically significant difference, and then again between day fourteen and twenty-eight. And it was the same with the relaxation group, there was a statistically significant decrease between day zero and day fourteen and then another between day fourteen and twenty-eight, so this was good. Also, there was the largest difference between the first set, day zero and fourteen, than between day fourteen and twenty-eight, and this kind of makes sense because if you're training, it's the reticular activating system which is believed to regulate one's attention and it's located in the mid-brain and it's mainly in charge of regulating which of the thousands of stimuli per second we process. So if you are listening to this interview my voice will be one of them, seeing my image will be one of them, but there's thousands of things that you don't even notice. So like, when your name is called at a party you might notice that, because you're training your reticular activating system to notice particular stimuli as thousands of them are being processed. So, the theory behind this is that since the reticular activating system controls what we can process, you're training it to respond to the acupressure, so it will make sense that there will be the largest response initially and then a continued response that would decrease.

Also, in terms of like neural connections, you're going to make connections at first rapidly and then connections in the same location would occur less rapidly but still continue to occur. So that's kind of why I had that trend. So then I analyzed the data trend and then I did what's known as regression analysis to kind of see how visual tensions scores changed overtime, because I had a twenty-eight days analysis. And I generally found that because of that more increase in the first fourteen days, there was a general natural algorithmic rate of increase in the stimulation group and a natural algorithmic rate of decrease in the relaxation group. So that was my result in terms of how acupressure affects visual tension skills, the type of measurement of alertness and also how it affects it over time. So I was glad my hypothesis was supported in terms of that and, you know, it has positive implications for lots of groups and so in the future I'll definitely be interested and looking more to using it for patients recovering from strokes for example or children for learning to do all types of that applications that, that make it interesting.

Question: Why is the military interested in acupressure?

Steven Castellano: This research also does have particular applications for the armed forces. I think it was Dr. Louis Czoka, he is the founder of a Center for Enhanced Training at West Point and he said that at no time other than today has there been a greater demand for the army to invest in the means to regulate alertness. And what he means by this is that the army's requiring all types of advanced technology, they have, like let's say the soldier, he'd be looking at the GPS device that he'd be looking up a broad field, so like a broad view in the real world so you're going from a narrow focus to a wider focus, it requires a lot of visual attention skills. Definitely air traffic controllers. When I visited the Federal Aviation Administration I was shocked, like there's all interfaces going on. The same with pilots, you're going from looking at interfaces to looking out, so there's a lot of things that require visual attention skills and training of that and I think that's what they're interested in.

So, when I presented it, I presented to 4th Mammoth at the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association, and when I presented to them a lot of people asked me to forward their paper. So I think definitely more research would have to be done: looking into how acupressure trains alertness over time; if we could apply acupressure for longer or shorter periods of time; how that would affect it if there were certain points that were more effective. So they are definitely looking into that and I mean it would be a long process for them to implement acupressure training into the armed forces, but it's definitely something that there is a lot of interest in and that we might want one day see.

Question: Should Western and Eastern medicine be more integrated?

Steven Castellano: Yeah, definitely I mean, there are few differences that I see right now. Eastern medicine is more focus on just regulating the body, keeping you healthy, boosting your immune system sort of thing, and western medicine is definitely more like focus treatments. You have like medications, antibiotics that are there for targeting specific types of illnesses and helping you recover from them. So I mean, that's the key difference I see at this point in time, and I think that both of them should be used. I think that natural treatments to boost the immune system are definitely good. Acupressure could be good for more types of chronic pain. It's been shown to help and, as I said, with the tension that was my research, so I definitely think they could be integrated. And also, like the theories behind them, people say Eastern medicine hasn't been scientifically investigated. So that's my goal, to kind of scientifically investigate it, see how it is effective. And if you look at the theories behind them, there's chi going through the body according to Eastern theory, and you're trying to regulate that but then it's been shown that the acupressure points are located at points in the body where there is low electrical resistance, so it's conductive areas where you can easily send an electrical signal throughout the body. So in that sense, you're sending electrical energy throughout the body, there is electrical charge differences between blood in the arteries, blood in the veins so, really, chi could just be another form, an eastern term, for electricity that they had way back before electricity was formally discovered. So, I mean I think that there is a definite relationship between the two and they should connect more so then than they are in the present.

Question: Where do you think you math and science talent comes from?

Steven Castellano: So right now my interests in college are neuroscience and physics and I do find that interesting that my parents are a psychologist and an electrical engineer. I mean, it's ironic there. But I remember growing up and I was thinking, I don't want to be an engineer, and I don't know why I felt that. I felt maybe I felt there was a more narrow mindset. I mean, since then I've discovered that, that they actually have a good thought-process behind it, after taking engineering classes in high school. But I remember growing up I don't think they pushed me in any specific direction. I think I just kind of found that path on my own, however they did definitely help me in finding a direction. I know when I was in like, grammar school I was in third grade and when you're in math classes, if you're ahead of the class you just get more worksheets, it would kind of be boring, like repetitive, work and it's at no fault of the teachers, because there's people that they are trying to encourage to work and you wanna be more apathetic, so they have a wide range of people to cover and it's a big classroom, so, I mean, it's just a crazy environment.

So I remember we went to visit a private school where they had small classes of 15 and teachers were talking about what types of math they were doing and the types of books they were reading in English class and I was really interested. And back then, I was in like third grade, so I wasn't like "oh private schools are really expensive" so I said, "Oh, can I go here?" and my parents, they actually, you know, after just this impromptu visit, they were like, "well most kids don't want to switch schools, they want to stay where they are, but that's really great for him." So they managed to allow me to switch to the private school in fourth grade, so, I mean, they've definitely been encouraging me. And even after I went, starting in fourth grade, I mean it's kind of like where you sink or swim you know, and you're not used to doing as much work in the public school system so when it first came, the first day and we got lots of homework and tests to study for, that's where I could have either not worked hard or work hard, and I remember I had a rough start, like the first two weeks, but they were just like you know, "you have to keep up with the work," and that's were I was able to really be successful. So I definitely think they have a positive influence on me and I find it very interesting that I'm pursuing similar areas of interest as they did, but I don't really ever feel that they pushed me towards science or towards medicine.

Question: What was your first science project?

Steven Castellano: My first science project I remember it was fifth grade, and it was on symbiosis. And I read about how earthworms help plants in the soil, and I found that really interesting, so just to kind of discover it for yourself, even though you hear about it, to have a plant and put soil--one with regular soil and one with the earthworms in it-and see that the plant is actually more stable, more productive, that there is like a mutually beneficial relationship going on, that was a really interesting project for me.

And then after like exploring that I just I mean I was really interested in optical illusions. I think it was like Bring Your Relative To School Day, and I brought my grandpa and we were doing all kinds of optical illusions, and that was like my thing for some reason. So I really was just interested in them, how like the brain can misperceive certain things, or how you can interpret things different ways and it's not always clear-cut. And then, from there like in seventh or eighth grade, from that interest I then went to high school and that's kind of what I started researching. It's a great program at High Tech, where they want you to do research like for one year, and I know a lot of good articles I was looking into have to do it like visual attention and stuff like that. My first research project sophomore year had to do with like how video games affected visual attention skills and I found that they were helpful but I also found that video games have tons of negative side effects like stress and addictivity and stuff like that, so I guess that's kind of what encourage me and maybe look into acupressure as like an alternative means to train increased visual attention skills. So I think it was always some sort of I guess neuroscience and visual systems starting in like seventh grade.

Question: What's your advice for aspiring scientists?

Steven Castellano: I feel that any student, not necessarily like a talented and gifted one, I don't really feel like there's anything particularly special about me that would make me considered talented and gifted, so I mean, I feel like any student, if they are interested in pursuing something they will be driven to follow through with it. I know in my case, like a lot of the teachers weren't necessarily recommending human subjects research, because it's kind of hassle to deal with. I mean they definitely encouraged it once you expressed interest in it, but you know, that was a slight hurdle. Also paying for software for my Enumeration Task and then you like apply for grants and you'll kind of just be driven to carry through I feel, if you're really deeply interested in what you're doing, so I feel like if you have an interest, you will be successful. I know that's probably a little bit idealistic I guess some advice I would say is start small, you don't have to start with solving the biggest problems, sometimes just re-verifying what is already known as a scientific truth can be just as interesting, to discover it for yourself. I know that was some of the most interesting things I did in my classes, it was just seeing what have been already been done and then trying to demonstrate yourself or re-verify using a slightly different analysis. So you could start small, do projects like that, and then see where your interests take you. Follow through with it and there's definitely contacts out there, I mean, if you want to learn about statistics, for example, you could get books from the library. And I feel like people start making connections after you start and express interest in it. I know some of my friends have emailed professors at universities or local universities and you could definitely get mentors to help you, then if you find that you are interested in research and you really do enjoy it, and you want to take it a step further.

Question: How did you determine the stimulus plan would be a success?

Steven Castellano: So at the Moody's Challenge basically you wake up you get your computer set up with a group of five kids and at 7 am you download a document and this is year was the stimulus package and how effective will it be? And I know the first hour I would say was the most difficult because I don't really think we've got a lot done. You're kind of just doing a lot of research and you're wondering how we're going to do this, how are you going to be able to analyze the stimulus when like economist are doing this 24/7 and they haven't reach upon conclusion and you know, you just kind of say what assumptions are we going to make and how we are going follow through with it and that first hour is probably the most nerve wracking in that sense because you don't really know your direction and you start to plot a course that may not be successful.

So what we ultimately did was we look at how much money was being spent in each sector, if it's education, or an infrastructure and then we look at how many jobs are generally created per dollar in that sector by looking at like an average of few if you graph the total amount of revenue versus the total amount of jobs, you'll get kind of get an approximate for the rate of how money jobs per dollar you'll get and then in addition to that then we did like an infinite serious calculation in which you look at like the marginal propensity it consume and that's basically how much money a person will spend per dollar and you multiply that infinitely because as one person gets the money in the new job and they'll spend it and then I could promote more job for another sector.

So that's kind of the first analysis we did to see how many jobs will be created and we determine that there would be about 3.1 million jobs created using that analysis. We also found that in terms of like bank for your buck the most jobs per dollar it wasn't education sector because of our, as I said the total jobs for total revenue sort of analysis we did and taxes were actually, were actually the least like bank for your buck but because they are the largest part of the stimulus they did create the most jobs. So you know, we weren't necessarily sure if we agree with the breakdown of the stimulus. We would say maybe less tax cuts and more spending on education but overall we found that it would probably create 3.1 million jobs in that sense and in addition to that, then we ask to analyze unemployment.

So we looked at previous trends in unemployment with the 1930s recession I think 60s recession and 1980s recession and we found that first statistically significant decreased unemployment occurred 3 years after the first statistically significant increase on federal spending and all of three of these instances. So we kind of made a linear regression because I have the least degrees of freedom for federal spending is the per cent of the GDP versus the unemployment rate. When we did this we noticed that it quickly became negative unemployment at the federal spending that Obama is proposing because it is unprecedently high.

So then we, what we did was we saw that there is Okun's law and it relates federal spending and unemployment it was like a natural algorithmic relationship, so we then apply the natural algorithmic regression toward data set and found that there was actually a stronger fit in with the linear regression and we are able to approximate that. Since it's a three year offset factor between the unemployment rate and federal spending percent of GDP is that, this federal spending in three years or reduce the unemployment rate to about 6.2 percent versus without the stimulus it would be more in the order of 9 percent so that was like our second major analysis. We also set conditions for if the second stimulus will be needed. What benchmarks do we expect as far as the unemployment reaching 6 percent in three years and if we need a 2nd stimulus, we mention the breakdown and we said that like food stamps and education spending would, would probably the most beneficial so that was our analysis and we have five of us working 14 hours straight in a crazy hectic environment but we definitely produce a pretty cool paper if you consider that a brief time spend and just like the passion that went into it and produce.

Question: How can we increase scientific literacy in America?

Steven Castellano: All right. So when it comes to technological literacy I kind of think that it's just a matter of getting expose to being aware of it. I mean I really have likened the classroom at least in my class is being able to like see how torque is related to like a car and building like a mouse trap race car or different projects that you may do. So just with regard to that I think bringing projects to the classroom is definitely cool. Being able to make discoveries for yourself, see a different areas of science are connected, how frictions really related to intermolecular relationships and chemistry so just more interaction in the classroom, more projects in the classroom, I definitely think that maybe there are technology courses at many schools and maybe increasing that requirement might be productive in terms of increasing technological literacy. I know it is predicted that the jobs for technology teachers there is less and less teachers and demand is increasing greatly so. Looks like a very stable job but there's also not a lot interest in it. So I know, like the way of a technology student association in New Jersey, we were trying to increase funding for that and definitely increase funding for more technology teachers and I feel like it's part of the education spending, that we're looking into definitely put some of that spending into increasing the teachers and technology because that's definitely something that kind of concerns me for the future that what I found to be some of the most interesting classes and the most enlightening in terms of making discoveries that they might not be as successful in the future when I feel like they should be more success in the future as technology continues to grow exponentially each day.

Recorded on: May 8, 2009