Celeste Paerels of Hastings was one of 300 high school seniors named scholars this month in the annual Regeneron Science Talent Search, based on an original research project she submitted in 2020. She and her school will each receive $2,000.
The onset of the coronavirus pandemic almost derailed Paerels’ hopes for Regeneron honors. As a member of teacher Melissa Shandroff’s two-year Science Research class, she was working on a project about food insecurity in Westchester when the internship she had set up was canceled because of Covid-19. Paerels had to come up with an alternative. She changed her research subject and completed her new project — an investigation into vaping among Hastings students in grades 8-12 during the pandemic.
“Celeste is passionate about and committed to her project,” Shandroff said on Jan. 25. “I am so proud of her for being recognized and chosen as a Regeneron Science Talent Search Scholar. She is an excellent student who earned this honor.”
Paerels' study was conducted in June 2020 via an online Google form sent to 528 students, excluding a small number who had "opted out" of receiving such mailings. Of that total, 244 responded, or 46.2 percent.
“The idea came to me in spring of my junior year,” Paerels said on Jan. 25. “In freshman year I had had a lot of friends who were vaping. I wondered whether they were still vaping during the pandemic.”
Paerels suspected the number of e-cigarette users had changed in 2020. “You always hear ‘peer pressure’ or ‘familiar norms’ are why people used e-cigarettes,” she said. “I wanted to see if this was a norm for Hastings. We can see, across the board, that students who use e-cigarettes have parents or siblings who use some tobacco products. But that influence of family and friends remains unclear.”
For her baseline, Paerels used the results of a 2019 survey that her classmate Juliana Ochacher conducted on e-cigarette use among Hastings students in grades 7-11. Ochacher received 311 responses.
“A lot of things had happened since 2019,” Paerels noted. “Covid-19, the FDA ban on flavored e-cigarettes, and the news that broke in fall 2019 about e-cigarettes and the danger of lung damage. Suddenly, there was a lot of data that e-cigarettes aren’t good for you.”
Paerels found that e-cigarette use fell from 31.4 percent in 2019, to 10.2 percent in 2020. Compared to Ochacher, Paerels focused on what was changing, and why.
“I drew a distinction between decreased use and quitting,” she said. “The main reason people started using less was because of Covid-19.” She also found that during the pandemic, students’ access to, and ability to consume, e-cigarettes were limited. “They couldn’t do it with their friends,” Paerels said. When the schools went to remote learning, students were around their parents more.
Health-related concerns topped the list of reasons students gave if they had quit vaping, especially after December 2019, when the reports of vaping-related lung injuries made headlines.
The FDA’s January 2020 ban on flavored e-cigarettes was not as clear an influence in Paerels’ survey. “My guess is that’s because students continued to use flavored products, but they transitioned from reusable products, like Juul, to disposable flavored products,” she said. She explained that a loophole in the law allowed sales of single-use disposable flavored e-cigarettes.
Paerels also looked for overall patterns of substance use, to find out if students who used e-cigarettes were more likely to use other addictive substances as well. Of those who tried e-cigarettes at some point in their lives, 97 percent also tried alcohol. Of those who never tried e-cigarettes, 37 percent never tried alcohol.
Paerels would be interested to know whether the drop in vaping has continued into this year, now that some HHS students are back at school, at least part time. She is “mostly remote” when it comes to school attendance.
“In 2019, it was common to go into the bathroom [at school] and just get hit with fruit-scented vapor,” she said. “I don’t know where it is now; if I had to guess, I’m hoping the trend I’m seeing — of definitely less than 2019 — will continue.”