Introducing BHHS’ 2019 Regeneron Top Scholars!

By Anika Kumar and Raquel Kanner

On January 9th, 300 students around the world were named Regeneron Top Scholars in the Regeneron Science Talent Search. And…seven of the 300 top scholars are our very own! Congratulations to Samantha Abbruzzese, Alan Chang, Rachel Chernoff, Alessandra Colella, Ethan Jacobs, Brent Perlman and Jonah Schwam.

Well, what exactly is the Regeneron Talent Search? Society for Science describes this prominent competition as “the nation’s most prestigious pre-college science competition. Annually, students entering the Regeneron STS compete for more than $3.1 million in awards.” This competition is sponsored by Regeneron, a renowned biotechnology company that creates transformative medicines for many lethal diseases.

In order to qualify for the Regeneron Talent Search, each student must take part in a scientific study. With a vast selection of topics and numerous fields of research, ranging from astronomy to engineering to neuroscience, every student takes part in a study that differs from the next, and the possibilities are truly endless.

On January 23, 40 of the 300 top scholars – our seven semi-finalists from Byram among them –  were selected and named as finalists; one of these seven students was our very own Brent Perlman! He will present his work in Washington, D.C. in March.

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We interviewed each semi-finalist to learn more about their individual studies and how they achieved one of the greatest honors at such a young age.

Samantha Abbruzzese

What was your topic and what did you do?

My topic was on Huntington’s disease (HD), which is a neurodegenerative disorder. I determined that the transcription factors, or gene regulating proteins, I used were able to aid the development of HD neurons. With this knowledge as a foundation, further development of a therapeutic approach using the transcription factors could have a profound impact on HD patients.

How did you get the inspiration?

I got my inspiration from watching the show House M.D., which I highly recommend. After each episode, I would research the diseases mentioned and learn about their causes, symptoms, and treatments. One of the characters on the show, Thirteen, has Huntington’s disease, and I was fascinated by its unique age of onset and neurodegeneration. I came into the program knowing that I would study HD, and I never once faltered. I am proud that my research will be able to help others who are impacted by this devastating disease.   

What did you learn from your experience in Science Research?

Science research allowed me to experience connections with professionals in my field of study and learn how to work in the laboratory. As a sophomore, I never could have imagined that I would be dissecting mouse brains and performing laboratory techniques, such as genotyping and immunocytochemistry, independently. The experience that I had in the lab has prepared me for college and medical school, and I now have connections with professionals that I can use later in life.   

What advice would you give to prospective students?

I would tell prospective students that the journey in science research is like climbing Mount Everest: it’s long, strenuous, and, more likely than not, something will go awry. But, study what you love, make the commitment, learn from your mistakes, and put everything you have into it because once you make it to the top, you will be glad you took the first step.

Alan Chang

What was your topic and what did you do?

My research focused on understanding how a specific tumor suppressor gene mutation promotes cancer progression, an important step in improving the development of cancer treatments. I programmed a novel computational method of analyzing cells using machine learning, a form of artificial intelligence, and ultimately found several ways in which the tumor grew faster via immune evasion. By further applying this form of computational analysis, researchers can better understand genetic causes of tumor growth and thereby increase the effectiveness of future cancer treatments.  

How did you get the inspiration?

I’ve always been interested in biochemical mechanisms, especially gene editing. With that said, I was intrigued by this specific field of research with the cutting-edge breakthroughs regarding the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing system. There had never been such a powerful and precise tool, and I was excited to explore its vast potential in forwarding all areas of science.

What did you learn from your experience in Science Research?

Science Research is truly a course like no other. Beyond learning the science behind my topic, I’ve gained countless valuable life skills, including contacting professionals, presenting PowerPoints, public speaking, technical writing, and so much more. Science Research has taught me the synergistic power of curiosity and perseverance, as these two things can take any student very far in their research journey.

What advice would you give to prospective students?

Don’t be afraid. Whether it be worrying about Science Research’s workload or being unsure if you have a specific field of interest, none of it matters if you have a passion for science and are interested in being on the forefront of modern-day research. Everyone has their own Science Research journey that takes them through twists and turns, unexpected speed bumps, and unprecedentedly rewarding moments. Be courageous, be brave, and most importantly, stay curious: you’ll be surprised by where your Science Research adventure will take you.

Rachel Chernoff

What was your topic and what did you do?

I used a research technique known as ischemic preconditioning to investigate the source of microglia, a specific type of cell that exists in the brain and helps with immunity and clearing cellular debris. Additionally, I noted behavioral sex differences in my mouse models following ischemic preconditioning. Overall, my results lay the groundwork for the use of ischemic preconditioning as a potential preventative technique to attenuate the damage following stroke.

How did you get the inspiration?

I first was interested in studying Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. This was because I had a cousin who served in the Israeli army and suffered from PTSD. Sadly, he could not find a way to cope and died from a drug overdose. This led me to my mentor who had an interest in PTSD; however, she wasn’t studying PTSD at the time. I became interested in her research which then led me to my own.

What did you learn from your experience in Science Research?

Science research gave me a new confidence in myself I never had before. I learned to be able to speak in front my peers and even professionals like my mentor. I learned how to carry out communication with someone of authority. Lastly, science research taught me to never give up.

What advice would you give to prospective students?

I would tell students that nothing is impossible. Looking back at my sophomore year, I never thought I would be where I am now. I think the most important thing in this class is to give it your all because it will be pay off. You get what you put into it.

Alessandra Colella

What was your topic and what did you do?

My topic was “Examining variability in neuropsychological tests as an indicator of post-treatment cognitive decline.” What I did was I studied the effects of chemotherapy and cancer treatments on cancer patients which is commonly known as “chemo-brain.” Previous research indicated that when evaluating an individual’s cognitive impairment, the testing methods weren’t accurate. So what I did was develop an alternative method of predicting and assessing a cancer patients cognitive decline. To do this, I used a novel statistical method that looked at how variable a patients test responses were, rather than the actual responses when being tested.

How did you get the inspiration?

I got the inspiration for the topic before I actually entered the program. It’s not that interesting but I was literally just sitting on my kitchen counter and I was thinking about some of the people that I know that have undergone chemotherapy and I thought about how intense that drug is and the effect it had on your body. So I asked myself, “Does the strength of the drug affect your brain in any way?” And I looked it up and it was a real thing so I just went with it. My grandma experienced cognitive decline as she got older and was undergoing treatment for a form of blood cancer that she had, and I had noticed that this cognitive decline was moving at a fast rate so that came to mind as well.

What did you learn from your experience in Science Research?

Being in science research was undoubtedly the best decision I have made in high school. I have learned so much about myself. My confidence has definitely grown and I have learned that I can really do anything I set my mind to. I’ve learned how to talk confidently about science with adults and become proficient enough in a topic to speak about it with people who have been in this field for 20+ years. Lastly I think I’ve learned that I shouldn’t doubt myself and my abilities. I never really thought that being a semifinalist was a possibility for me and looking back, I don’t really know why I ever thought that. Everyone in this program is so passionate about what they do and we all work so hard. It’s been incredible to be surrounded by such intelligent, amazing people for the past three years in this program.

What advice would you give to prospective students?

I would tell prospective students to 100% take science research. This program is like nothing else you will have access to in high school. I’ve learned about myself and have gained skills that will stick with me for the rest of my life. People are always worried about the workload that we have in Science Research, but we all love what we are doing so it doesn’t feel like work. And in reality, it’s all what you make of it. It’s honestly been such an amazing three years and it’s definitely been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Ethan Jacobs

What was your topic and what did you do?

My study is entitled “Optimizing and Applying Environmental DNA (eDNA) Detection Methods to Analyze the Presence of River Otters in the Northeast.” In short, I collected water samples from multiple rivers in New York, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, filtered the samples myself, and then took them to Rockefeller University where I extracted, isolated, and analyzed the eDNA contained in them. Environmental DNA (eDNA), contained in samples from feces, urine, scales, skin, hair, or other excretes, was analyzed in my study to monitor biodiversity and map population distribution, supporting the use of eDNA research as an effective system of population monitoring to aid conservation efforts.

How did you get the inspiration?

I first learned about environmental DNA research when searching for a topic at the beginning of sophomore year. I initially had no idea what I wanted to research, but I fell upon an article on the unique and cutting-edge approaches of eDNA detection methods – a new cost and time efficient way to map populations of species. I eventually narrowed down the my methodology, the location, and the species I chose to make my study fit my three year timeframe and the ability to stay local all in an effort to study this unique and novel approach.

What did you learn from your experience in Science Research?

I definitely learned a lot more about my specific scientific interests and was able to improve as a student from science research. I learned, from experience, how valuable an organized calendar with personally set deadlines can be and how important it is to really love your topic from the beginning to the end. I also learned how to truly work on independent scientific research with constant hard work and perseverance.

What advice would you give to prospective students?

Like I mentioned, the best ways to stay successful in science research are being organized, hard working, tenacious, and having a love for your topic. It is really important to pick a topic you think you will want to study and explore for at least the three years in the program, and luckily the flexibility in choosing a topic is perfect to be able to do so. Other than that, the most success comes from being determined and open-minded, as you never know what results you might find and when in the process it may come.

Brent Perlman

What was your topic and what did you do?

I worked in a decellularized cardiac tissue engineering lab at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute. However, my research was in the field of synthetic biology (broadly). Although seemingly far-fetched, I documented, for the first time, the ability of human cells to conduct photosynthesis. In order to induce human photosynthesis, an intrinsic capacity of chloroplasts was exploited. Chloroplasts are the components of plant cells that conduct photosynthesis, and, as my study demonstrates, have the “natural” or endosymbiotic ability to be incorporated by human cells when cultured together. Additionally, I devised a process that allows for the sterile culture of functional isolated chloroplasts, providing future chloroplast therapies with great clinical promise. In fact, innovative treatments for heart attack, stroke, and cancer could stem from my research, and my work even has applications in creating full organs in labs, producing cheap biopharmaceuticals (i.e. drugs) both in vitro and in vivo, and– in the far future– space travel and colonization. I also currently have a patent-pending for the processes of sterile chloroplast culture and human cell uptake of chloroplasts (i.e. human photosynthesis).  

How did you get the inspiration?

Ever since I learned about photosynthesis in my seventh grade biology class, a whole new world of magical green plants opened before me. To be completely honest, I was jealous of plants, and from that jealousy blossomed my research in human photosynthesis. When first entering science research, I thought that human photosynthesis was just a myth because no scientists had created photosynthetic cells before; if a distinguished researcher hadn’t done it yet, how could I?

As a result, I altered my science research focus and started to look for other fields of biology that seemed like magic. Then I stumbled upon tissue engineering. I was fascinated by the heart tissue engineers who attempted to create fully-functional, beating human hearts in labs. After securing a mentor at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, my research focus shifted to a niche area of tissue engineering because my mentor started creating hearts out of spinach leaves! Around that time, I began to read journal articles about mitochondria’s role in heart failure in a bid to increase the efficacy of my mentor’s spinach leaf heart grafts. I learned that mitochondria had the interesting endosymbiotic ability to be incorporated (without being digested) by human cells when cultured together. I instantly thought back to my dream of human photosynthesis: what if human cells could similarly uptake chloroplasts and conduct photosynthesis? After intensely digging through the literature, I unearthed a study that demonstrated mouse incorporation of chloroplasts (Nass, 1969). Since then, the intricate evolutionary mechanisms of plants have continued to inspire me daily.

What did you learn from your experience in Science Research?

So much. The program taught me how to interact with professors and world-renowned researchers, how to read and dissect even the most inaccessible and esoteric of journal articles, how to present as a professional researcher would, how to give a shameless elevator speech and boldly advocate for myself, and– most importantly– how to make my passion and dreams turn into a tangible reality. I could not speak more highly of the program and its amazing teachers, and truly believe it is the gem of our school. Going into college and the professional world, I feel confident that the science research program has equipped me with the necessary tools to pursue my dreams and excel.

What advice would you give to prospective students?

No matter if you have hated every single STEM class you have ever taken, or if you are a total biology nerd like myself, you should consider joining the science research program. As long as you are curious, ready for a challenge, and open to becoming the best version of yourself academically and professionally, you are a perfect candidate for the program!

Each and every one of you has the opportunity of a lifetime; don’t waste it! All I am asking you to do is to try the program out. The worst that can happen is that you decide the program is not for you after a semester, and can rest assured that you didn’t make a mistake in dropping the course. I was also on the fence about whether or not I should apply for the program when I was a freshman, but without it, I would never have found a passion worth pursuing for the rest of my life!

Once you are in the program, there is only ONE thing that you MUST remember; it is our job as the next generation of leaders to innovate and revolutionize previously stagnant fields of science and change the world. Don’t let anyone tell you that your ideas are the naive dreams of an inexperienced high school student; if something hasn’t been done before, work hard enough and you might just be the next big thing.

Jonah Schwam

What was your topic and what did you do?

My topic is “Elucidating the role of muscle stem cell correction in regenerating muscle in Duchenne muscular dystrophy: The development of a novel CRISPR/Cas9-mediated gene knock-in system.” Essentially, I used the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing system in dystrophic muscle tissue to test a new type of gene therapy for Duchenne muscular dystrophy that targets muscle stem cells.

How did you get the inspiration?

Throughout high school, pole vaulting has proven to be a great passion of mine. Victims of neuromuscular diseases like Duchenne muscular dystrophy cannot pursue their passions, as I do, because of physical limitations. About two years ago, I stumbled across a video from one of my favorite science YouTube channels: a German channel called Kurzgesagt. The video detailed how humans recently discovered the tools to cure virtually all disease, micromanage the global food supply, control the path of evolution, and potentially cure Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

The application of gene editing finally became reality when CRISPR’s gene editing potential was discovered in 2013. For the first time, researchers managed to harness the power of site-specific gene manipulation, granting humanity access to the limitless possibility harbored within the human genome. I knew I had to be a part of the research. I read a number of articles demonstrating CRISPR’s efficacy in correcting the genomic source of DMD, but no one had investigated which cell type to target. With an unsolved question and the ultimate genomics tool in hand, it was time to get started.

What did you learn from your experience in Science Research?

In addition to the tremendous work ethic and organizational skills that our school’s science research program has helped me develop, my research experience taught me what it means to be a scientist. It is intriguing to read about gene edited cells in a paper, but it is something far greater to hold a test tube of the CRISPR plasmids I designed and see the fluorescent knock-in proteins expressed in their edited cells. My favorite part of my lab experience was the uncertainty of it. I wondered if my plated cells were properly edited, or if the flasked bacteria on the shaker had been successfully electroporated. Unlike in a biology textbook, none of the answers were in plain sight, and I found that to be incredibly exciting.

What advice would you give to prospective students?

I know this is overused advice, but I cannot stress enough how important it is for prospective and new science research students to study a true passion. The science research program demands that students devote more time to a specific topic than any student has spent on any one thing before. A student will only complete his or her best work over such a long and demanding period of time with true passion. Be obsessed, or be average.

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The Science Research program here at Byram Hills High School is an enriching course fueled by collaboration and support. While these few were the only ones recognized by a prestigious competition, these seven semi-finalists are a win for everyone in the Byram Hills community. These seven students truly reflect the talents of all 27 ASR seniors. The amount of time and dedication all seniors in the program put into their work is a true showcase of the persistence and commitment they put towards their research. Make sure to congratulate them next time you see them!