Intel semifinalists inspired by family, mentors

Long Island 2013 Intel semifinalists, pictured left to Long Island 2013 Intel semifinalists, pictured left to right: Joshua Pollock, 17, of John F. Kennedy High School, Rebecca Monastero, 17, of Sayville High School, Arshia Aalami, 17, of Roslyn High School, and Mayuri Sridhar, 17, of Kings Park High School.

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The competition was stiff, but more than 50 students from Long Island's schools showed they were among the most talented young science minds in the country.

Through superstorm school closures, power outages and deadline challenges, the students drew inspiration from family members and mentors.

Here are four of those named Wednesday as semifinalists in the Intel Science Talent Search:

JOSHUA POLLOCK/John F. Kennedy High School

Joshua Pollock kept his focus on completing research that held great personal meaning even as he helped his family and neighbors haul waterlogged furniture out of their Merrick homes after superstorm Sandy.

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The project, titled "Emotional Face Recognition," was inspired by his twin brother, Zachary, who has an autism spectrum disorder.

Pollock, 17, became John F. Kennedy High School's 30th Intel semifinalist Wednesday after several hurdles, including his family's home being destroyed by floodwaters and an oil leak during the storm on Oct. 29.

"I felt like I couldn't even finish the application because I had to help my parents clean our house," Pollock said.

His family lived for nearly three weeks with a family friend, without heat and electricity. They're back in their home now, but without the insurance money, they've been limited in the ability to make repairs. They still have no kitchen and no heat or hot water.

This week, they had drywall installed on the home's first floor.

Pollock got a four-day extension for his project and worked around the clock to make sure he was able to submit his research paper. He clicked "send" online at 11:46 p.m. the night the project was due.

Having grown up alongside his brother, who like many on the autism spectrum has experienced communication difficulties, Joshua Pollock had always been curious about how differently those with autism read facial expressions.

"I remember how he would have flash cards of a happy face or a sad face and it would have to be labeled with the emotion," Pollock said. "I guess I always wanted to know why he got so much attention and why he was in special classes."

In his project, Pollock used similar flash cards, some labeled with the wrong emotion and others with the correct one, to study how his fellow classmates without autism and some of his brother's friends with autism differed in their reaction time when they viewed the cards.

His results weren't too surprising, but his will to carry through the project was, others said.

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"If research is all about determination and perseverance and teaching yourself new material, then Josh is the picture of what a researcher is," said Barbara Franklin, one of Pollock's research teachers.

His own mother suggested he quit the competition several times, she said.

"Every day we woke up, we had a new obstacle," Marcia Thune-Pollock said. "But he'd tell me that quitting wasn't an option."

REBECCA MONASTERO/Sayville High School

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Rebecca Monastero hopes to continue what she started and, with any luck, her work will result in public health recommendations for all of us.

Monastero, 17, began studying the impact of mercury in seafood on humans through the Simons Summer Research Program at Stony Brook University under the mentorship of Jaymie Meliker, assistant professor of public health.

"It was really interesting to me because of where we live here on Long Island," Monastero said.

For her research paper titled "Interactions of Mercury and Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Avid Seafood Consumers," Monastero analyzed data from more than 300 seafood eaters to determine mercury and omega-3 fatty acids and the health effects they had on the participants.

The Sayville High School senior, however, has been a vegan for the last year.

"There are members of my family who eat a lot of fish," she said. "So the work is mostly for them."

She found that those who ate tuna tended to have higher mercury content in their systems than those who ate salmon, as well as a possible relationship between mercury and anxiety.

Monastero will continue her work, focusing on demographics to help come up with dietary recommendations, she said.

"I really appreciated the opportunity to work at a major research university, and I'm so grateful to my mentor," she said.

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ARSHIA AALAMI/Roslyn High School

Ever curious about which gender is better at self-promotion on college essays? Arshia Aalami of Roslyn High School was when he set out to study the topic.

The title of his project, "My Paper Is Fantastic! Gender Differences in Self-Promotion and Their Effects on Perceptions of a College Essay," perhaps says it all.

Aalami, 17, of Roslyn, said his family's background helped him arrive at the idea.

When he was 9, Aalami emigrated from Iran to the United States with his parents and sister.

He said his mother, a confident and well-educated engineer, seemed to get overlooked in his native culture. He wanted to see if sexism still had a place in American high schools and chose as his research tool an analysis of the college-application essay -- often an opportunity for self-promotion and advancement.

Aalami found there was a significant gender divide. Young men were more likely to self-promote than young women. And, when women did, it negatively affected their likability, he said.

"As a scientist I wasn't surprised," Aalami said. "But knowing some of my peers -- they are very involved and confident women -- I was very surprised."

MAYURI SRIDHAR/Kings Park High School

Joining the research program at her school in ninth grade was all it took to get Mayuri Sridhar hooked on science.

She's in good company as the daughter of an electrical engineer and a pharmacist, and the younger sister of a 2008 Intel finalist who now is an engineering graduate student.

"I definitely want to stay in research. I want to be a college professor," said Sridhar, who applied on an early-action basis to Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was accepted.

In her biochemistry project, "Computational Analysis of the DNA-Binding Mechanism of the p53 Tumor Suppressor and its Inactivation through the R249S Mutation," Sridhar sought to show structural changes in the mutation in the proteins that suppress tumors.

The Kings Park High School senior worked with Carlos Simmerling in the Simons Summer Research Program at Stony Brook University.

Although confident in her project, Sridhar was nervous when she found out Wednesday that she was selected as a semifinalist. Still, she credits her family with supporting her and said she hopes to follow in her sister's footsteps.

"I really hope to be a finalist," she said.

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