BY ANGELA MONTEFINISE
Ever wonder why clouds don’t fall out of the sky, or why the human immune system doesn’t fight off tumors?
Ever try to figure out how cockroaches are related to allergies, or whether the universe is going to recollapse on itself?
Twenty-two science wiz kids from Queens have not only thought about it, they have done the research and conducted in depth lab experiments over the past three years to find the answers.
On Jan. 15, their hard work paid off. The high school seniors were named semifinalists in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search, a nationwide competition that has challenged the country’s young, scientific minds for 62 years.
Students participate in a three-year program at their schools, choose a topic that interests them, find a professional scientist to be a mentor, conduct work mostly over the summer, and submit a paper to Intel. Of the 1,581 projects submitted by students at 164 schools across the country, only 300 semifinalists were chosen, including the 22 Queens kids.
All semifinalists will receive $1,000 for themselves and for their high schools, and will be considered by Intel to be named finalists on Jan. 29. The 40 finalists will go to Washington D.C. for a banquet in March, and one final winner of the “junior Nobel Prize” will be named on March 11.
This year, 10 students from five Queens high schools were named semifinalists, along with 12 Queens residents who attend schools outside of the borough. The students, who almost all plan to go to medical school, are from across the borough, and like Queens, represent the globe, with some students born in China, Poland, and India.
SEARCHING FOR A CURE
The mysteries surrounding terminal illnesses such as cancer and AIDS were tackled by several Queens residents in their Intel projects, including Flushing resident and Stuyvesant student Kevin Lai, whose project examines why proteins that normally activate molecules that allow T-Cells to form conjugates and fight tumors do not do so in cases of human cancer.
Lai concluded that the proteins cannot localize in the space between the T-Cells and the tumor, and he said, “If we know why they can’t bond, we can improve amino acid therapy for cancer.”
The same concept was used by 17-year-old Poland native and current Glendale resident Monika Laszkowska, who investigated the gene p53 in the human body. The gene is only activated when cancer develops in the human body. In normal cells, the gene is suppressed by another gene called Sir2. When cancer does form, it means that Sir2 is still suppressing p53, so Laszkowska used a new method called RNAI to insert RNA into the cells and force the extraction of p53 to fight the tumor.
Floral Park resident and Hunter College High School student Emily Yau decided to study the gene ERR-10, which creates a product of the same name that serves as an inhibitor to the effects of breast cancer. The gene was recently discovered, and Yau was working to discover its exact function and what it can be used for.
In addition to cancer studies, Little Neck resident and Townsend Harris student Jessica Hetherington studied Integrase, the protein in the HIV virus that is believed to infect human cells, and determined that it cannot infect a cell alone, but needs other proteins. She said, “I hope to continue my research to eventually look at other proteins and determine the actual combination that infects cells . . . This will help create methods of treatment.”
Bronx Science student and Queens Village resident Jay Ramesh worked on a project studying two proteins with similar structures – one found in cattle that has a defined structure, and one in humans that does not have an accurate structure. Ramesh tried to mutate the structure of the first protein to create a semi-accurate picture of the second protein, known as CCR5, which bonds with HIV proteins to form the disease. Ramesh said, “If we know the structure of CCR5, we can work to develop treatment.” He said he’s still fine tuning the model, but has been successful in creating a “somewhat accurate picture.”
LOOKING TO THE SKY
Woodhaven resident and Stuyvesant student Betty Luan had her head in the clouds while doing her Intel project, which asserted that a self-propelled air convection current keeps clouds at a stable height in the sky.
She created a mathematical formula with 28 variables to test the system, and so far, she said, it resembles a perfect system. “We take normal things like clouds for granted. I became interested in them, so I did the project,” she said.
Fellow Stuyvesant student and Hollis Hills resident Michael Shaw went beyond the sky to investigate how hydrogen and helium become condensed enough to become stars. Shaw believes that supernova explosions move the gas around in such as way that it issue to become condensed. Although he said it will “take months to get real results,” the former American Museum of Natural History intern said, “It’s moving along nicely.”
Newtown High School senior Qichao Hu’s work also looked at space, investigating whether the universe will collapse on itself or not. The Chinese native and Rego Park resident investigated the newly found properties of “dark matter” and Redshift value, which determine density and the speed by which the universe expands. He concluded, using computer simulations, that eventually the universe will deflate.
FIGHTING FOR THE FAMILY
For some Intel semifinalists, the projects were personal. For Elmhurst resident and St. Francis Prep student Erwin Wang, the loss of his grandmother to cancer when he was in fourth grade motivated him to do his project on the disease, focusing on a gene called “Chip Gene.” He looked at the gene’s affect on the body’s Androgen Receptor, which does not protect the body as it should during prostate cancer. He said the results are not complete yet, but the gene did work to activate the receptor to fight tumors.
Francis Lewis High School students Alice Shen (left) and Sun Ling Yang are friends who do many things together, including winning Intel semifinalist honors for separate science projects.
Tribune Photo by Angela Montefinise
Fellow St. Francis Prep student and St. Albans resident Christina Morgan also tried to help those close to her by studying Crohn’s Disease, an illness that effects people she knows and causes bowel inflammation but has no known cause. She examined the diets of people who have the disease to see if there is a connection between milk and the disease. She said there is a “clear connection.”
Although Bayside resident and Stuyvesant student Varun Narenda doesn’t have any relatives with Gaucher disease – a genetic mutation which causing abnormal enzyme secretion, an accumulation of lipids, and the death of cells that accumulate in the body, causing problems as serious as brain damage – he said he hopes to help other families suffering from the disease through his project, which was to create the first mathematical model of the disease through computer simulations to find a way to treat it.
WHERE NO MAN HAS GONE BEFORE
Flushing resident and Stuyvesant student Alexander Ellis was able to tread on new territory by creating an apparatus that, when placed on the outside of a laser, can create a pure mode called Alguerre Gaussian.
This beam is special because it is orbital, and can spin particles in an optical trap, propelling a small motor. Although he said he’s not sure what the motor can be used for yet, the property of exerting torque on something “very, very small,” can lead to more research.
Stuyvesant student and Jackson Heights resident John Hui also did something new by trying to map the DNA structure of Campylobacter bacteria, which usually affects cattle and stops them from reproducing. He said the bacteria can go undetected by the immune system because the bacteria are deviant, and said, “So far, I’ve been successful in mapping it, which will make it easier to treat the nation in areas like third world countries, where there isn’t artificial insemination.”
Townsend Harris student and Jamaica resident Jonathan Kamler creating a “soap scum,” or large, flat soap bubble, to create the conditions of an undersea pond or of plaque definition in a blood vessel two similar atmosphers. He said by created the conditions he can better understand the systems, which he has done successfully. He said he became interested in the subject because he loves sailing, and said, “I noticed how heat, wind and water mixed and it got me interested in systems.”
ACHES, PAINS, AND ALLERGIES
College Point resident and Bronx Science student Emmanuel Sin has always been interested in astronauts, and did his Intel project on their loss of bone density, and how to measure it.
He discovered a way to measure bone loss by taking urine samples and measuring the byproduct of broken down bone. Taking that information, he studied whether the current methods of measuring bone loss were adequate, and said, “After researching, I discovered that the current method, which requires taking urine from space to the Earth, is the best way.”
Cardozo student and Oakland Gardens resident Jennifer Tze-Heng Choy worked on Osteoarthritis, and whether a hormone secreted from the adrenal gland effects rat cartilage. She said it did, and added, “Arthritis is known as a physical disorder, but I studied the systemic aspects of it to see if there are other ways to treat it.”
Allergies were the focus of Forest Hills resident and Bronx Science student Yi-Chen Zhang, who studied whether certain pesticides actually increase the number of amount of allergens being released from cockroaches, allergens that contribute to inner city asthma. After studying several samples, she said, “There was a definite increase . . . I think it’s interesting because people think the pesticides are helping them, but they’re actually hurting them.”
Townsend Harris student and New Hyde Park resident Bharati Kalasapudi decided to study lung inflammation in premature babies and learn more about a protein known as I(kappa)B(alpha), which regulates the factor that causes inflammation. The protein can either increase or decrease inflammation, and India native Kalasapudi explained that I(kappa) B(alpha) seems to decrease inflammation.
Glial Cells — or the cells that protect neurons in the human body — were the focus of a project by Bayside resident and Bronx Science student Debra Liu, who studied the “Glial Cells Missing Gene” by cloning the B3 and B4 fragments the gene taken from a fruitfly. She said a lack of Glial Cells in a person could cause depression, and said, “This research could lead to more information.”
Jamaica resident and Stuyvesant student Samba Silla decided to study peripheral vision in his project, determining whether the eye tried to group scattered objects in an organized way. Silla said he thought the topic was “interesting,” and said, “I concluded that those rules and principles are true.”
At Francis Lewis High School in Fresh Meadows, two Flushing residents – Alice Shen and Sun Ling Yang – were named semifinalists, and have been friends for four years. The two play violin together, and Yang said with a laugh, “We help each other out. But I think she helped me more than the other way around.”
Yang’s project was to examine teeth fossils from mammals and trace the elements in them to calculate the conditions of the time period that the fossils are from. This could help in dating fossils, she said.
Shen’s project looked at the organic compound of Alpha Lactam, which is similar in structure to Beta Lactam, which is a functional part of penicillin. Alpha Lactam more effective as an antibiotic because it could spark less of a reaction, so Shen synthesized two versions of the compound to study their principles and purposes. While one is still synthesizing, the second version – known as the spiral version – remains stable at high heat, which is a positive sign that it can be used in antibiotics.
IMPRESSIVE PAST, PROMISING FUTURE
According to Talent Search Spokesperson Clint Tanner, Queens has traditionally done “extremely well” in the science competition, with Townsend Harris High School leading the pack. He said, “Townsend Harris has done well year after year after year . . . But one thing about Queens is that a mix of schools does well each year. It’s not just one that is successful.”
At each school, teachers and faculty advisors worked hard with the students to help them and give them words of encouragement. At Cardozo, teacher Marc Bellow said of semifinalist Choy, “She was born bright and is a wonderful, hardworking student . . . We’re a community here, and we know she he is going to grow to do great things.” At Francis Lewis High School, Science Assistant Principal Susan Watins said of Yang and Shen, “You have to admire their persistence and hard work. These kids are the future . . . They’re so impressive.”
At Newtown High School, Assistant Principal of Science Robert Yanez praised the semifinalists, but said, “Their work is so complicated and advanced, it’s hard for the teachers to understand it . . . Some of these kids should get awards for the names of their projects.”
Bellow added, “If the future is in their hands, the future’s OK.”