Local Students Semifinalists in Major Science Competition

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by Robert Kimmel – 

Reaching the semifinalist status of the Regeneron Science Talent Search 2020 is no small achievement.  Described as “the nation’s oldest and most prestigious science and mathematics competition for high school seniors,” the annual contest was established 79 years ago by the Society for Science & the Public. Among the 33 scholars from Westchester to reach the semifinal level were two Sleepy Hollow High School students: Tess Kaplan and Samantha Livingston; and Rishit Gupta, from Irvington High School.

Classified as “original research in critically important fields of study,” applications came from 1,993 contestants representing 659 high schools nationwide. Of those, 300 were named semifinalists. “Scholars were chosen based on their exceptional research skills, commitment to academics, innovative thinking and promise as scientists,” explained the announcement identifying the student semifinalists. For reaching that level, Kaplan, Livingston and Gupta each received $2,000, as do their schools.

Kaplan’s project was titled “Increasing Emotional Intelligence in Typically Developing Students and Students with Developmental Disabilities.” She described her study as “focusing on the relationship between acting and Emotional Intelligence (EI). I have been doing theatre since I was in third grade, so being able to combine my interest with science was super exciting.”

“In the first phase of my study, I worked with typically developing students in the high school,” Kaplan noted. “Participants took nine acting classes that focused on different improvisation games and activities and their EI level was tested before and after the lessons. In my second phase, I worked with students with developmental disabilities in the school district and did the same process. Both phases showed a significant increase in EI level after the acting lessons! This is just one step to the beginning of limiting the social and emotional gaps between differently abled students,” she concluded.

“Using the Identification of Diseases Caused by a Change in Phosphorylation State to Identify the Signaling Pathway of BRAF V600E Mutation,” was the technical title Livingston gave her work. “My project focused on diseases caused by protein mutations. Specifically, I looked at why the mutations result in disease. In some diseases, incorrect phosphorylation could be the reason why. Phosphorylation is a chemical modification to a protein that can alter its function,” she clarified.

“I wrote multiple computational programs to identify which diseases, out of a 20,000-disease database, occurred as a result of incorrect phosphorylation and the kinases involved,” Livingston said. “Kinases are specialized enzymes that catalyze phosphorylation. Using my analysis, I identified four kinases which are candidates that can incorrectly phosphorylate BRAF, a protein that is mutated in 60% of skin cancers. Further study can now be conducted on the role of those four kinases in skin cancer.”

Both Kaplan and Livingston are participants in the Sleepy Hollow High School Advanced Research program directed by science teachers Michele Zielinski and David Erenberg. “I couldn’t be happier for Sam and Tess,” said Zielinski. “Science research is all about testing creative solutions to real problems, and that’s exactly what they’ve done.  It is a learning experience every step of the way, and, while it can be extremely challenging at times, the reward is well worth it!  While their projects are very different, Sam and Tess share a passion for research and their work has the potential to make a positive impact on society.  I am so happy to have these students recognized as STS scholars and I am eager to see what they do in their college careers.”  Erenberg said he was “so proud of all the hard work our scholars have done over the last three years. Their hard work really shows.”

Gupta titled his entry “Error Correction Using a Repetition Code on the 14 qubit IBMQ Melbourne Quantum Computer,” which involves using quantum computing to develop more powerful computers.

“The main potential for quantum computers comes from a concept called entanglement, which basically allows the computer to do many calculations simultaneously, a feat your PC is unable to do,” Gupta explained. “My research focused on addressing the large amounts of error in the quantum systems of the computer, which is the biggest obstacle in realizing a large-scale quantum computer. By testing a software called repetition code on the IBMQ Melbourne quantum computer, I was able to prove the effectiveness of such error-correcting codes for future research.”

“We are so incredibly proud of Rishit on this extraordinary accomplishment,” said teacher Stephanie Schilling, who, with teachers Nadia Parikka and Geraldine Winterroth, supervise the High School’s Science Research Program.  “It has been a pleasure to watch him develop into a young scientist through the Science Research program. Rishit has put countless hours into his research and scientific paper. His hard work and dedication are admirable.”

Irvington School District Superintendent Dr. Kristopher Harrison called Gupta’s achievement, “a much-deserved recognition. During his educational journey through our schools, he has continued to be passionate about his learning and always takes advantage of every opportunity available to him.  He is an impressive young man whose commitment and ownership to his learning is inspiring.”

Harrison also lauded the District’s Science Research Program. “Under the direction of our talented faculty there have been opportunities for our students to explore exciting areas of the sciences.  In recent years, our students have been very successful in their research with many receiving recognition for their work. The growth of the science research program has been complemented by many other enriching initiatives that are outgrowths of the District’s strategic plan such as the implementation of a comprehensive K-12 STEM program, Destination Imagination teams at the elementary, middle and high school levels and participation in the Science Olympiad program.”

Of the 300 seniors competing for a “finalist” title awarded to 40 students late last month, only one Westchester student, Holly Chen, from Horace Greeley High School, Chappaqua, made it to that level.

Regeneron, headquartered in Tarrytown, engaged with the Society for Science & the Public in 2017 as the third sponsor of the Science Talent Search, enabling the overall award distribution to nearly double. Prior recipients of the program have gone on to receive many honors, including 13 Nobel Prizes.

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