- The Washington Times - Monday, April 24, 2000

Spring break for one District of Columbia teen-ager was more like an adventure of a lifetime.

Curry Cheek, 14, a ninth-grader at Benjamin Banneker Academy, spent the past few days flying in helicopters, snorkeling with dolphins and joining in the search for a rare tortoise.

Her interest in science and a contest sponsored by the parent company of the Discovery Channel took her to the Galapagos Islands, where she joined a team of scientists for five days of research and documentary filmmaking.

"This is the best spring break I've ever had," Curry said in a phone interview Saturday from the Quest, a science vessel docked off the coast of one of the islands. "How many people get to go to the Galapagos and get to be around all these interesting and extremely bright people?"

Curry flew out to the Pacific island chain about 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador on Wednesday. Marine biologists gave her a behind-the-scenes tour of the Charles Darwin Foundation, dedicated to preserving the wildlife on the islands.

The volcanic archipelago was made famous by Darwin, who wrote his revolutionary book, "On the Origin of the Species," after visiting the lush landscapes. The islands, named for their tortoise population, also is home to penguins, sea lions, iguanas and a vast assortment of plant life.

Curry worked with a few dozen researchers and crew members from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day, participating in discussions, assisting an underwater team collecting data and helping with editing and cataloging.

"It's definitely benefiting me in terms of getting a cultural experience, learning more about science and learning about how a documentary is filmed," said an excited Curry, who was due to return from her trip yesterday.

While on her adventure, she met Lonesome George, a 90-year-old giant tortoise thought to be one of the last of his long-hunted and plundered subspecies. The goal of the mission was to find a mate for George.

Curry earned the trip last year by competing in the first Discovery Young Scientist Challenge, a national middle-school competition created by Discovery Communication Inc. that rewards students for their knowledge of science and their ability to communicate about the subject.

Among other feats, students had to determine whether a sea water sample came from the coast of Maine or the Caribbean Sea and, in an ecology challenge, why one had more diversity of species than the other.

They stepped into the role of forensic scientists and had to determine age, gender and other characteristics from a real skeleton.

Curry, who hopes to become a neurologist, and the other prospective scientists were selected from more than 1,000 applicants who won awards at state and regional science fairs to participate in the challenge.

The local teen was recognized as a finalist for her research on the effects of antioxidants on plants exposed to a carcinogen. She concluded that beta carotene helps slow deterioration and tumor growth in plants.

She plans to speak to her biology class and share her journal entries when she returns to school.

"She happens to be a very visible success," said Thomas Fritts, a wildlife biologist who accompanied Curry. "I think a lot of other people can live vicariously through her."

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