By Zachary Milewicz
Yesterday, Siemens announced this year’s semi-finalists of their annual competition “in math, science and technology for high school students.” Of the record number of almost 2,500 applicants, 491 students were declared semi-finalists, and one of those semi-finalists comes from our community! Byram Hills High School senior Alexandra Brocato was recognized for her project titled Illuminating non-neuromuscular phenotypes and their temporal trajectory in Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) using electronic health records.
Brocato, a member of the Authentic Science Research program, was originally working with her mentor, Dr. Valentina Fossati, at the New York Stem Cell Foundation. Unfortunately, her mentor was unable to offer her a position at the lab due to her status as a minor. Determined to continue with her research, Brocato contacted Dr. Lee Rubin and Dr. Scott Lipnick at the Rubin Laboratory at the Harvard Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology. They agreed to mentor her, and Ali began her work on Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a neurodegenerative disease that is the leading cause of death in infants. Ali explained that “most research has focused on the molecular side of the disease. There is no understanding of how it progresses or what symptoms are highly prevalent.” Using R, a statistical programming software, Ali analyzed over 600,000 fields of data to understand the prevalence of the disease’s symptoms. She was able to create a timeline and trajectory of the disease, which can be used to assist drug development and can allow doctors and researchers to intervene and prevent the next symptomatic fluctuation.
However, Brocato’s research has impacts beyond just SMA. The tool she created using R code can be applied to many other neurodegenerative diseases where the progression is unknown. Ali’s research methodology paves the way for preventative medicine. Her mentor aims to continue this research with different insurance records to expand the sample size. And in the future, they plan to look at ALS, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s, all of which are still not fully understood.
Ali spent four weeks at the Harvard lab this past summer and continued after returning home. In addition to her time inside the lab, Ali had the opportunity to explore the city. She went out for lunch with many of the amazing research assistants and undergraduates working in the lab beside her. Ali, a player on the BHHS Girls Varsity Soccer team, even had the experience of attending a soccer game at Gillette Stadium, where she watched Roma play Juventus, with Dr. Valentina Fossati and five other scientists.
Brocato found out about her recognition as a semi-finalist at around noon yesterday afternoon. Authentic Science Research director and teacher Stephanie Greenwald came into Ali’s English class crying. She exclaimed, “You’re the one!” Ali recalls being “shocked, proud, and happy.” Due to how competitive the process was, Ali “felt very honored and very validated that all the hard work—hours spent working day and night and giving presentations at the lab—were all worth it.”
But Ali’s work hasn’t stopped yet. Next week, she will be going to a stem cell conference, where she hopes to network with others in the field. This will be her second year attending; once again, she will be the sole high schooler. Ali is extremely excited, as she sees this as a “great way to share [her] research with other scientists.” Ali furthers, “The key thing is that research cannot exist in a vacuum; all the findings are created to help doctors make more accurate diagnoses.” She also hopes to help her mentor publish a paper shortly—either this winter or next spring—on the important findings. Ali is looking forward to participating in other competitions and hopes to have a really strong piece to submit to the Regeneron Science Talent Search in mid-November.
Brocato recognizes that she did not get to where she is alone and expresses gratitude towards those around her. She says, “First I’d like to thank my mentors who have guided me over the past year and a half and allowed me to conduct this amazing research. They spent so much time Skyping, emailing, meeting, and sharing articles and other helpful resources to further my knowledge. Without them, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to pursue my passion in science.” Back in Armonk, “I’d really like to thank my mom for all of support and guidance. She spent countless hours helping me write my drafts. I’d also like to thank my dad for giving honest and helpful critique.” And finally, she’d like to thank her Science Research teachers Mrs. Greenwald and Dr. Matthew.
Congratulations again to Ali Brocato on being recognized as a semi-finalist. This is only the start of what the Authentic Science Research program anticipates to be a very successful year. Seniors are working hard to prepare for Regeneron, JSHS, WESEF, and several other opportunities to share their impressive findings.