Senior, Sandy Spring Friends School
When Andrea Aresta-Katz was 12, a family friend with the neurological disorder dystonia became unable to walk. Andrea’s mother told her that the girl’s insurance company had denied paying for a procedure that could have eased her symptoms. There are many forms of dystonia, but generally it is characterized by involuntary muscle spasms. Andrea has dystonia herself, but a far less debilitating and more treatable form. When she heard about her friend’s predicament, Andrea says she became “infuriated.”
That year, Andrea participated in the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation’s Dystonia Awareness Day, joining a group of volunteers to educate members of Congress about the condition and to advocate for more research funding. The Chevy Chase teen has discovered a passion for medicine and genetics.
“Over the years, she has grown into a role where she comfortably speaks with members of Congress and staff, especially explaining the impact on young patients and families desperate for help,” says Jessica Feeley, editor and special projects coordinator for the foundation.
When she was 14, Andrea noticed that some lawmakers seemed bored during the foundation volunteers’ verbal presentations. So she produced a video featuring a teen with dystonia struggling to overcome the condition, then benefiting from technology, including a surgically implanted brain stimulator. It is shown annually to legislators on Dystonia Awareness Day.
Andrea, now 18, has organized other fundraisers for the foundation, including an ice skating night in Silver Spring. Along with her sister, she creates and sells handmade soaps, and donates 10 percent of the profits to the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation. She has interned with the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, where she coded genetic data to be used as a baseline for artificial intelligence. She also spent a summer at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, where she shadowed doctors and genetic counselors, and cut and froze spinal cords from mice to be used by researchers.
Andrea, who is also an accomplished equestrian, hopes to become a genetic counselor.