TJ Seniors Lead the Way in Another Strong Year for TJ Research
Senior Kunal Shroff Captures Third Place at Intel Science Talent Search Finals
The IntelScience Talent Search (STS) is the nation’s most prestigious science research competition for high school seniors, with only forty students selected as finalists each year. Previous finalists have gone on to win eleven National Medals of Science, three Breakthrough Prizes, twelve Nobel Prizes, two Fields Medals, and seventeen MacArthur Foundation Fellowships.
Formerly sponsored by Westinghouse, this was the competition’s 75th year and its last with Intel as a sponsor. On May 27th, it was announced that Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, a biotechnology company founded by two former competition participants, will be the competition’s new sponsor. Regeneron will double the prize money awarded to semifinalists and top winners and will also earmark thousands for outreach efforts.
A total of 1,750 seniors from around the country entered the competition in November. For the first time since Temple Douglas, TJ ’10, was a finalist (see August 2015 issue), TJ was represented at the Intel STS finals, which are held in mid-March in Washington, DC. To add to the excitement, TJ’s finalist, senior Kunal Shroff, was singled out for a top award. For the last several years the competition has awarded first, second, and third place medals in three categories: Basic Research, Global Good, and Innovation. Kunal received the Third Place Medal of Distinction for Basic Research and a $35,000 prize for his project, “The Relationship Between Lethality and Genomic Instability in Euploid and Aneuploid Yeast Cells Expressing Pathological Huntingtin.” He was profiled in a Washington Post article along with other local finalists.
The judges found that Kunal’s project discovered new relationships between the key protein associated with Huntington’s disease and the biological processes of cellular death that cause Huntington’s symptoms, noting that “his work may lead to new treatments.”
Huntington’s disease can be characterized by its observable phenotype in patients. Some of the biological phenotypes are associated with cells expressing the mutant Huntingtin protein. The question that the scientific community is working to solve is: How does the mutant Huntingtin protein cause Huntington’s disease, specifically, what is the mechanism through which the mutation interacts with the cell? Kunal’s project attempted to address this question by correlating Huntington’s disease with changes in the chromosomes within a cell. His research showed that Huntingtin destabilizes chromosomes and induces a lot of large changes within the genome. This novel finding opens up a whole new world of research into the mechanism behind Huntington’s disease that could one day lead to a cure. View a short video clip of Kunal explaining some of his results here.
Years of Effort Pay Off
Kunal, who had been interested in science and experimentation for as long as he can remember, first became interested in neurodegeneration after watching his great-grandfather suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. Once at TJ, he took full advantage of TJ’s courses in the area of neuroscience, completing AP Biology, DNA Science I and II, and Neurobiology.
Kunal began working in the lab of Prof. John S. Choy of Catholic University, who became his mentor for his winning Intel STS project, in the summer after his sophomore year. That summer, Kunal assisted Dr. Choy with two cancer research projects: a project working to identify mutations that might be involved in cancerous tumor growth; and a related project attempting to understand the role of certain proteins that are associated with cellular aging.
Kunal then returned to Dr. Choy’s lab during his junior year in order to begin work on the Huntingtin project. Although the topic of neurodegeneration was outside the scope of Dr. Choy’s lab, Kunal’s Huntingin project was examining genomic instability, a huge field of study in cancer research. Prof. Choy explained the genomic instability models and the methodologies that were used to study cancer, and Kunal co-opted and modified these models and methods to work within the neurodegeneration framework, which required plenty of troubleshooting. He continued this work through the summer after his junior year, and into the fall of his senior year, when Dr. Choy became his official Mentor pursuant to TJ’s Mentorship Program, under which select seniors conduct research in outside labs led by experts in their field. Kunal found that he was able to revalidate a lot of his summer results in a more controlled way during his senior year, which helped strengthen both the data and the conclusions he was able to make.
Many TJ students conduct research over the summer and about 70 seniors each year participate in Mentorship. However, it is very unusual for a TJ junior to spend two afternoons a week in a research lab. Kunal managed this by commuting for one hour twice a week for the majority of his junior year. Each Wednesday and Friday, one of his parents picked him up at TJ after 7th period and dropped him at a nearby Metro station for his long train ride to Catholic University in Northeast DC. After putting in a few hours of work, he took the Metro to Reston, where one of his parents picked him up. He arrived home around 9:00pm, which is when he started his homework.
When asked what it feels like to have been TJ’s first Intel STS finalist in six years, Kunal called it “surreal.”
“I never imagined that I would even have the opportunity to make it as far as I did,” Kunal said. “I still remember contemplating back in October whether or not I should even bother submitting my application for Intel STS. Back then, I felt that my work was incomplete and was nowhere even close to ready for the competition. I doubted that it would make it to the semifinalist level, but I wanted to be able to say I tried. To this day, it scares me how close I was to opting against submission and missing one of the best experiences I have had the pleasure of being a part of.
“Being recognized for my years of work is a truly rewarding experience. That isn’t to say that the other Intel STS participants from TJ were not equally deserving. I personally know about several projects at TJ that were just as strong as any project presented at the Intel STS finals. Being the first TJ finalist in 6 years is only due to one factor: dumb luck. I can say without a shadow of doubt that the school will produce many more finalists in the coming years.
“I would like to thank my mentor, Dr. Choy, for taking a chance on me and accepting me into his lab two years ago. I would also like to thank my parents for supporting me throughout my all of my research endeavors and helping make all the logistics behind my research work. Finally, I’d like to thank the TJ community for inspiring me to pursue science to the furthest extent possible as well as giving me a wonderful Mentorship opportunity to finish up my summer research. Being around all the people at TJ who are just as passionate about science as I am really encouraged me to push the limits of what a high-school scientist can do.”
Seven Other Students Are Intel Semifinalists
In addition to Kunal, seven other TJ seniors were recognized as Intel STS semifinalists:
- Jake Cui, “A Machine Learning Approach to Identifying Ordered Binding Regions on Order-disorder Protein Interfaces” (see also ISEF, below)
- Tarun Kamath, “Marked Decreases in Pediatric and Young Adult Solid Organ Cancer Mortality in the United States Since 1940: Analysis and Hypotheses”
- Ava Lakmazaheri, “Brain-actuated Robotics: A Logic-based Approach for Multimodal Programming and Operation of Assistive Humanoid Robots” (last year’s big winner at ISEF – see June 2015 issue) (photo from this year’s TJ science fair, right)
- Austin Mills, “Demonstrating the Development of Heavy Metal Resistance in Non-tolerant Multigenerational Brassica rapa“
- Matthew Sun, “Hyperacute Temporal Resolution with a Neural Population for Biologically Plausible Firing Rate Change Detection”
- Jason Wei, “Improving Lateral Flow Immunoassay Sensitivity by a Palladium-catalyzed Dye Reaction”
- Michael You, “Two-degree-of-freedom Bubble Oscillations in Elastic Vessels and Its Application in Sonar-induced Marine Mammal Injuries” (above, right)
TJ also had a strong showing in this year’s Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology. Each fall, students from all over the country submit projects as individuals or in teams of up to three to compete for regional awards in six regions. The competition receives approximately 1,800 projects each year and chooses a maximum of 50 in each region. Winners of the individual and team regional awards advance to compete at the national level.
Until last year, TJ’s Regional Finalists had to travel to Georgia Institute of Technology to compete, but the Regional Finals are now conducted entirely over the Internet. Students submit Powerpoint slides and a digital poster board presentation before taking part in a 12-minute oral presentation and a proctored 15-minute Q&A session with the regional judges.
This year, for the first time since 2010-2011, a TJ student was a winner in our region, advancing to the national finals held at George Washington University in December. Daniel Chae, TJ ’16, leading a team that included two students who attend high school in California, won the regional team category and received a third of the team’s $6,000 scholarship for his materials science project, “A Novel Study on the Effect of Surface Topography of 3-D Printed PLA Scaffolds on Dental Pulp Stem Cell Proliferation and Differentiation in vitro.” (pictured at the national competition, at right, courtesy Julia Chae, Parent ’16)
Daniel’s team examined the use of 3-D printed polymer scaffolds as a substrate on which to grow dental pulp stem cells. The stem cells could be used as dental or bone implants, and the refinement of processes for growing them in vitro is an important advancement in tissue engineering. View the team’s finalist video here.
In addition to Daniel, the following TJ students were selected to compete in the Regional Finals and awarded $1,000 scholarships:
- Kelly Cho, TJ ’18, and Harriet Khang, TJ ’18, “All-in-one Biosensor for Early Diagnosis and Prognosis of Breast Cancer”
- Christina Oh, TJ ’17, with Edward Oh, South County HS, “Investigating Interfacial Crosslinking to Combat Hard Foulants” (at TJ science fair, right; see also ISEF, below)
- Michael You, TJ ’16, “Two-degree-of-freedom Bubble Oscillations in Elastic Vessels and its Application in Sonar-induced Marine Mammal Injuries” (science fair photo, above)
Intel STS & Siemens Coordinator Has Busy Fall
In his role as TJ coordinator for the Intel STS and Siemens competitions, Chemical Analysis Lab Director Dr. Brian Kennedy gets busy each spring and devotes many hours each summer and fall to students who intend to submit projects to one or both of the competitions. Starting with information sessions in the spring and continuing with summer correspondence, he supports students and teachers through the entire application process. Beginning in the summer and extending into the fall, he reminds students of due dates and answers questions about application requirements.
“I like seeing students have opportunities to excel in their work and put forth their best efforts toward these competitions so that they can be successful. I think these opportunities will help them as they develop their own academic and career goals, ” Dr. Kennedy said. “I take pride in helping the students and hope that someday I’ll see a TJ graduate win a Nobel Prize . . . .”
TJ Sends Contingent to Intel Science & Engineering Fair
The Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) is the world’s largest international pre-college science competition, with approximately 1,700 high school students selected from 419 affiliate fairs in 77 countries, regions and territories. TJ students who advance from the TJ Science Fair and receive Grand Prize awards at either the Fairfax County Regional Fair or the Virginia State Fair are eligible to attend ISEF, which rotates among three US cities and was held this year in Phoenix, Arizona.
All individuals and teams from TJ who attended ISEF came home with ISEF Grand Awards:
Jay Gupta, TJ ’16, “Role of Sirt1 during Oligodendrocyte Progenitor Proliferation in Cerebellar White Matter after Hypoxia,” Second Grand Award of $1,500 in Cellular & Molecular Biology; Regional Fair Grand Prize (photo from TJ science fair, right)
Christina Oh, TJ ’17, “Investigating Interfacial Cross Linking to Combat Hard Foulants: An Experimental Study on Enzymatic Activities of the Balanus amphitrite,” Third Grand Award of $1,000 in Biochemistry; Regional Fair Grand Prize (see also Siemens and photo, above)
Siona Prasad, TJ ’19, “Identifying Greenhouse Gas Hotspots in Megacities.” Fourth Grand Award of $500 in Environmental Sciences (also First Special Award and $1,000 from American Intellectual Property Law Association); State Fair Grand Prize runner-up
Jake Cui, TJ ’16, “A Machine Learning Approach to Identifying Ordered Binding Regions on Order-Disorder Protein Interfaces” Fourth Grand Award of $500 in biochemistry; State Fair Grand Prize runner up (see also STS, above)
Nirmaan Shanker, TJ ’16, and Aneesh Susarla, TJ ’16 “Development of a Toxic Metal Ion Sensor in Water Using Gold Nanoparticle-Amino Acid Assays,” Fourth Grand Award of $500 in Environmental Engineering; Regional Fair Grand Prize (photo from TJ science fair, right)
Other State Fair First Place Winners:
Juniors Suhas Sastry, Eric Wang and William Xu, “Hardware Module-Based Message Authentication in Intra-Vehicle Networks: Cybersecurity for Connected Cars” State Fair First Place Award in Computer Science; also Intel Excellence in Computer Science Award (photo, right)
TJ Team Wins Conrad Award
For the second year in a row, two TJ teams were Finalists at the Conrad Spirit of Innovation Challenge and one of those teams won First Place in its category.
The winning team in the Cyber-Technology & Security category, Kosmos-MediKey, included TJ sophomores Kavya Kopparapu, Alex Peng, Rahul Rajan, and Justin Zhang, and Naman Singh of Westfield HS. The team members were named Pete Conrad Scholars.
The Kosmos-MediKey team has also been invited to present its project — a mobile app that provides health information where and when you need it — at the American Society for Engineering Education conference in New Orleans in June.