They learn to read the minds of plants. They fit entire galaxies into a computer. They even search for (part) of a cure for cancer. They are Stuyvesant’s 2010 Intel semifinalists.
Every year, dozens of Stuyvesant students work for months on a science research paper to submit to the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search (ISTS). And every year, a large number of students proceed to the next round. This year was no different. On Wednesday, January 13, nine Stuyvesant students were named Intel Semifinalists.
“Each year we continue to be impressed by the caliber of the semifinalists and inspired by their mastery of math and science in addressing extraordinarily complex medical, technological and environmental challenges,” said Elizabeth Marincola, president of Society for Science & the Public, the non-profit organization that administers the ISTS, according to the Intel Web site.
Intel research is a difficult process that requires determination and originality. Researching and coming up with new ideas can be difficult for students.
However, in the end, Intel students feel that their research is very rewarding.
“The thing with Intel is that it’s not always something that has to be groundbreaking in and of itself,” senior and Intel semifinalist Andrei Nagornyi said. “It can be something subtle that takes some time to figure out. Even if it doesn’t solve a whole problem, it is a step towards finding a bigger solution.”
The 40 Intel Finalists, who will have a chance to travel to Washington D.C. and compete for the top ten places, will be announced on Wednesday, January 27.
Senior Peter Cha
Approximation of Convex Polygons by Inscribed Polygons
Finding a topic for his Intel project did not come easily for Cha.
“I was supposed to start research in January  and I picked this problem and worked on it for about six months,” Cha said. “But after a while the professor I was working with and I decided it was too hard. So we came up with this problem which was similar, of finding the relationships between inscribed polygons.”
For all of the summer and the first two months of his senior year Cha worked diligently to prove various characteristics of polygons inscribed within one another. I have no idea what this means!
“I liked it because it has applications not just in math,” Cha said. “You can use it in robotics to plan the motion of a robot as it moves. It enables you to simplify the math involved by treating the shape of the robot as a polygon.”
Though the research for the project was demanding, Cha is happy with his final product.
“It’s my own work, so it feels great,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever use this particular topic again, but the experience of researching and writing the paper will definitely help me for the rest of my life.”
Senior Rena Chen
High Resolution Simulation Supporting Ram Pressure Stripping as Cause of ESO 137-001’s X-ray Tail
Chen’s project focused on the formation and shaping of galaxies.
“I ran a simulation to explore this mechanism that occurs in outer space when galaxies fall into galaxy clusters, which are groups of galaxies,” Chen said. “When the galaxy falls in at a high enough speed it can strip that galaxy of its interstellar medium, the hot gas between the starts, and that material forms a tail that can be seen as an x-ray. This process is called ram pressure stripping.”
Chen was inspired to look into this branch of astrophysics after reading a paper about x-ray cells that had been formed in space.
“But obviously you can’t conduct an experiment in space, so we used the parameters from the paper and we set those parameters in our simulation to reproduce an x-ray tail,” Chen said.
Chen’s simulation showed that the x-ray tails formed by ram pressure stripping can be studied to understand how galaxies are shaped. She hopes that this knowledge, combined with that of other researchers, will help to improve our understanding of how galaxies evolve.
“When galaxies fall into the galaxy clusters their morphology changes, and if we find out about how this out and other people do more research about this mechanism and other research about galaxy clusters, we might be able to explain how the Milky Way, our own galaxy came to be,” Chen said. “My research is a really small part of a much larger picture.”
Senior Jack Greisman
Shields Down: The Interactions of the Spore Coat Protein in Bacillus Subtillis Suggests a Novel Method of Spore Inactivation
Greisman has been working on his Intel project longer than almost any other semifinalist. His interest in science began in his sophomore year, when biology teacher Dr. Jonathan Gastel invited three NYU professors to speak to students about their research. Greisman was immediately interested in the research of Dr. Patrick Eichenberger, and he began working in Eichenberger’s lab the summer after his sophomore year. What does Eichenberger do?
“I’ve always been very interested in biology,” Greisman said. “There’s something restorative about finding things out for yourself, not just reading a textbook […] science is basically about learning things on your own, using old techniques to research new possibilities.”
Greisman’s project focused on sporulation, a defense mechanism used by bacteria to protect their DNA in adverse conditions.
“The bacteria can encase their DNA in layers of defense, which allows them to lie dormant for millennia,” Greisman said. “This mechanism is used by a variety of bacteria, including Bacillus Anthracis, or anthrax. I worked with Bacillus Subtilis, which is a model organism for sporulation, and I studied how the structures that encase the genome give it its resistance.”
“If we can understand this, then hypothetically we can come up with a drug that can inactivate the spores,” Greisman said, “So if we have another anthrax scare like in 2001, we’ll have an effective way to deactivate the resistance mechanism and reduce the risk.”
Greisman’s favorite part of the project was getting the opportunity to work on his own assignments in a lab with other researchers and students.
“I had a great experience. My professor [Dr. Eichenberger] was very helpful,” Greisman said. “And the lab was very close-knit. I was working with a lot of undergraduate students, and it was very cohesive. We would always talk and help each other. It was a really good experience.” Yay Jack! You should also say that he was a Siemens Finalist
Senior HyeEun Jeong
High Efficiency Hydrogen Production from Transportation Biofuels; Impact of Catalyst Regeneration
Jeong decided that she wanted to research biofuels after learning about the environmental problems that plague the planet.
“The environment is definitely one of the topics that are on people’s minds these days, and it was something that was important to me, so that’s where I got my topic from,” Jeong said.
Jeong’s research involved a way to make the production of hydrogen from plant-based fuels more efficient. As opposed to fossil fuels, which release a great deal of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, biofuels have no carbon output.
“The big struggle that I had was that when you’re reforming ethanol to produce the hydrogen for fuel cells you need to mix it with gasoline to make it possible to work with, and the sulphur contaminates the ethanol,” Jeong said.
Jeong solved this problem by “flowing air to brush the sulphur off the surface, which allows for the continuous regeneration of the catalyst and prevents the ethanol from becoming contaminated,” she said.
Jeong’s favorite part of her project was getting the opportunity to work in a lab. “It was really exciting and not what I expected,” she said. “We had to build everything ourselves, even building a reactor with wrenches and bolts. Many times we were stopped because of problems with the equipment but once we got the hang of it, it was worthwhile to build everything myself.”
“I got a deeper perspective about how scientists present their work to us from this experience,” Jeong said. “I liked learning about the work that goes on behind the scenes, and I will probably continue my research if I can.”
Senior Regina Lief
The Role of the Neuro D-1 Transcription Factor in Pancreatic Development
Lief wrote her paper about “the role of the Neuro D-1 transcription factor in pancreatic development,” or, in layman’s terms, “the way that information encoded in DNA gets transcribed into proteins, which then do the work of the cell,” Lief said.
This seems like an obscure subject to write a paper on, but Lief did a lot of research before deciding on her topic.
“You find labs that are working on something that interests you and e-mail a bunch of people and hope that they’ll take you,” Lief said. “I always liked genetics so I e-mailed people from the genetics departments of various institutions.”
And how did Lief’s interest in genetics lead to a paper on Neuro-D1 transcription factors—the proteins which translate information in DNA in the pancreas into proteins which can create insulin and other important chemicals?
“The lab that took me was working on the pancreas so I read my mentor’s grant proposal and I noticed that there was a hole in our knowledge of what Neuro-D1 encodes and so I figured that I would try to figure it out,” Leif said.
Intel papers are expected to uncover new knowledge about a specific topic, or at least draw new connections among previously discovered data. This journeying into unexplored territory can be challenging for high school researchers.
“Your experiments, in all honesty, fail as often as not, and you don’t have anything to check your work against to know if what you did is actually right,” Leif said.
However, Leif feels that feeling of exploration was what made her research exciting.
“You have to try new things to discover new things,” Leif said. “We discovered that Neuro-D1s can be used to help people who are hypoglycemic or diabetic to control their blood sugar […] we haven’t gotten to research the subject even further, but it was great to even get that far.”
Histone MacroH2A Overexpression Inhibits the Metastatic Potential of Breast Cancer in Mouse Cell Lives
Li figured out that she wanted to study genetics in her sophomore year.
I took two genetics classes and I know that genetics and cancer were something that I wanted to learn about,” Li said.
So I looked up labs in New York with interests similar to mine. Very few responded,” Li said. “Very few were willing to take a high school student. It’s pretty bad.”
Li finally heard back from Dr. Emily Bernstein, whose lab was studying the relationship between genetics and cancer. Li worked with a graduate student for a few months and over the summer she began research for her own project.
“I looked at a histone variant, the protein that DNA is wrapped around, and its affect on cancer progression. I found that a certain variant could reverse the expression of metastatic [cancerous] behaviors,” Li said.
Li’s favorite aspect of her Intel project was the research. “I always wanted to be a doctor, but now I think I want to do research on the side […] I liked working in the lab and gathering data,” Li said. “It was fun.”
Senior Andrei Nagornyi
New Morphological Features for Automated Classification of Galaxy Images Obtained in Deep Space Surveys
Nagornyi chose to research a program through which computers could be used to classify galaxies. Unlike Lief, Nagornyi came upon his topic for his Intel paper by chance.
“Originally I wanted to do something else, but then my dad found this Web site called ‘galaxyview.org’ where they ask people to volunteer and classify galaxies by hand,” Nagornyi said. “Astronomers have a lot of galaxies coming in from telescopes and they need to classify them by hand, which takes too long and there’s too many of them, so they need a mechanism that can do it automatically. [My father] pointed out to me that this was a big deal and he knew that I was doing an Intel research project and I figured that this was something I might be interested in.”
Nagornyi struggled to find a way to convert physical images of galaxies into something that computers could analyze. “Computers have to do everything computationally,” Nagornyi said. “When you and I see a galaxy for example, and we see the arms sticking out we think instantly, ‘oh, it’s a spiral,’ but I needed to find a way to turn the image into something the computers could analyze quantitatively.”
This was a daunting task, especially because the program that had already been developed for a similar purpose—teaching computers how to recognize faces—did not seem to be working for Nagornyi.
“With any kind of research you can work for a while before you realize you’re not going in the right direction,” Nagornyi said. “After I worked with the facial recognition program for a while I realized that it wasn’t getting me anywhere.
However, a stroke of luck turned the project around. “While I was working I made a small mistake in one of my snippets of code and surprisingly that small mistake turned out to be my new direction for the project,” Nagornyi said.
Nagornyi found the process of researching and writing his Intel paper, especially because he was working with his father.
“My dad helped me a lot. He’s curious like me and he loves to help me out with something from school, because he’s also a math and science type guy,” Nagornyi said. “I know some people worked with mentors, but with my dad it was a very good experience because I could feel free to ask questions […] there were things that my dad knew that I didn’t know and he was able to pass on that knowledge to me, and that’s something that was very valuable about the project.”
Senior Kashyap Rajagopal
Investigating the Role of SNARE-Associated Proteins as Targets for Neural Rehabilitation Drugs through the Model C. Elegans
For Rajagopal “the greatest thing about Intel is that you get to use [a professional lab’s] resources to do your own work, and work on an independent project,” he said.
Rajagopal chose to research a protein called complexin which regulates the transmission of signals from neuron to neuron in the brain.
“I worked with C. Elegans, a tiny species of earthworm, as a model, because Intel has restrictions on using vertebrates,” Rajagopal said. “I used various behavioral experiments to determine the role of complexin, and I found that complexin inhibits the transmission of signals in the brain.”
Rajagopal’s research can be used in coming up with medications for various mental illnesses, including depression.
“We know that patients with depression have insufficient serotonin. Since complexin suppresses the transmission of neurotransmitters like seratonin, we can alleviate these problems by targeting and inhibiting complexin for greater seratonin release,” he said.
Rajagopal felt that he learned a lot from working in a lab for his project.
“I learned that you need to be meticulous, you can’t just slap things together in a haphazard matter because you can’t afford mistakes.”
“It taught me to work in a research setting,” he added. “Definitely a rewarding experience.”
Senior Alan Sage
Characterization of Glutamotropic Response in Arabidopsis thaliana
Sage picked his topic partially because of personal reasons.
“I’m a vegetarian, but I’m doing biology, so I had to research plants or animals. I didn’t want to commit any animal cruelty, so I decided to work with plants,” Sage said. Laughing he added, “Though I learned that there just might be such thing as plant cruelty too.”
Sage started off experimenting with root memory, to see if plants were able to remember anything.
“But the results were too mixed up, and there was such a wide variety of phenotypes [behaviors] that I couldn’t draw any conclusions,” Sage said.
Instead Sage decided to look into plants’ reactions to glutamate, an amino acid that repels plants. “Glutamate in humans is a neurotransmitter, something that carries around signals in the brain,” Sage said. “But it also has an affect on plants.”
He found that plants would change their behavior when exposed to glutamate. “Glutamate is a link between plant behavior and human behavior, so it’s possible that plants can be used as a tool for understanding the human nervous system,” Sage said. “It’s a distant connection, but it could be used to connect humans to plants.”
Sage stumbled upon this subject at an event arranged by Dr. Gastel, the same one at which Greisman met his mentor.
“My mentor, Kenneth Birnbaum, worked at a lab with plant stem cells and his project seemed really interesting,” Sage said. “So I contacted him and got involved.”
Researching and writing his paper was a strenuous process for Sage. “It was miserable,” he said. “A tiny mistake can set you back two weeks. But you get through it. You just do one experiment at a time. But in the end that’s what makes it rewarding. The more you suffer for your work, the rewarding it feels when you finish.”
Disclaimer: Alan Sage was not involved in the writing and or editing of this article.