Jennifer Neville, Special to The Catholic Virginian

As you walk along the oceanfront you might spot an oyster shell. You may simply pass it by, or you may pick it up to add to your shell collection. Either way, it’s just a shell to you.

But for 15-year-old Parker Cruz in Hampton, it’s much more. Parker, a sophomore at Peninsula Catholic High School in Newport News, won first place in the Microbiology Senior Division of the virtual 2020 Tidewater Science and Engineering Fair (TSEF) in March with his project on whether chitosan, found in oyster shells, can be used to prevent and treat COVID-19.

Scientific studies, mainly with water in water treatment facilities, have shown that chitosan has anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties, Parker said. He explained that what makes his experiment novel is that he used chitosan derived from oysters rather than that of crabs and shrimp which are commonly used. He added that one benefit of chitosan from oysters is that it is hypoallergenic.

To put it simply, for his experiment, Parker added chitosan to E. coli in petri dishes, allowed the solution to set for 30 minutes, administered viruses to each petri dish and let them incubate for 24 hours. The E. coli grew back in all but the control experiment, leading Parker to conclude that chitosan may protect its host from viral infections.

Parker and his 12th-grade sister Madison participate in the science fair each year on their own volition rather than as a result of a class assignment. This year Madison won first place in the Biochemistry Senior Division for her experiment to determine if chitin can relieve chronic pain, thus making it a possible substitute for addicting opioids.

This is Parker’s fourth year in the science competition. Previous projects included testing oyster chitosan for hemostatic and anti-tumor properties. 

The marine science program at Star of the Sea School in Hampton, which he attended in elementary and middle school, sparked his interest in oysters as did an essay contest sponsored by Tidewater Oyster Gardeners Association which he won in middle school.

As he was brainstorming ideas for this year’s competition, Parker said he became intrigued with the coronavirus and its trajectory in its early stages. Social media had alerted him that “something was happening in China,” and subsequent news coverage showed the situation worsening.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) website, China first reported “a pneumonia of unknown cause” to WHO on Dec. 31, 2019. The outbreak was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on January 30, and a pandemic March 11. On Feb. 11, WHO announced a name for the new disease: COVID-19, short for coronavirus disease 2019.

“Once it started spreading, I realized I could do something on this,” Parker said. “I always want to make a difference in the world. Working on a project that is relevant right now made it a lot of fun.”

His father Martin said Parker’s science project is “the perfect time to combine faith and science because solving these global concerns is a pro-life issue.”

Both of Parker’s parents work in healthcare — his mother Karen as a nurse at Bon Secours Mary Immaculate Hospital in Newport News and his father as a pharmacist at the VA hospital in Hampton and Walmart in Gloucester. Each year Parker’s father encourages him and Madison to create projects that are health-oriented and have the potential to have “a big impact on a large population.” 

That’s in line with Parker’s aspiration to major in biology and then go to medical school to become a surgeon. 

Parker said he enjoys science because it is “ever evolving” with “new discoveries.”

“I try to be part of it, try to discover new things that could possibly change the world,” Parker said.

Emily Jensen, who taught Parker in her honors chemistry class last semester, said Parker has “a natural talent” for science, and although he is a quiet student, he participates in class discussions and helps fellow pupils. 

His mother shared a similar reflection about Parker and Madison, both of whom volunteer at Mary Immaculate Hospital during school breaks.

“They’re willing to share their blessings and talents as God uses them to give back to the community,” Karen said. “They love volunteering and discovering new things and helping people with what they discover.”

Jensen and PCHS principal Janine Franklin praised Parker for his winning science project. 

“We are very proud of this accomplishment, especially as it took a great deal of time and effort outside of his regular school hours,” Franklin said.  “The fact that he was so interested and curious about COVID-19 and its impact before it even became a serious concern in the United States speaks to his awareness of and compassion for his fellow humans.”