Intel semifinalists on their projects, education

Intel semifinalists Kavita Jain, Robert Tannenbaum and Julia Intel semifinalists Kavita Jain, Robert Tannenbaum and Julia Zhuang. Photo Credit: Handouts

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Fifty-three students from Long Island schools were named semifinalists in this year’s prestigious Intel Science Talent Search competition. Newsday asked several of the semifinalists to explain their projects and offer their thoughts about education. Here’s a closer look.

Avigael Sosnowik

Stella K. Abraham High School for Girls
Hewlett Bay Park

Project title: The consumption of negative and positive feelings: Film genre’s effect on adolescent emotions

Her project: Sosnowik’s research was not for the faint of heart.
She used horror movies to explore coactivation, a theory that positive and negative feelings can occur simultaneously. The project exposed adolescents who either frequently watch, or avoid, horror movies to horror clips and then surveyed them.

The results, Sosnowik said, showed that those who frequently watch horror movies got the most pleasure when they were most afraid, supporting the theory of coactivation. For those who avoid horror movies, there was a negative relationship until a “detachment frame,” a moment that tells viewers what they’re seeing isn’t real. Then, they experienced pleasure, too.

“I’ve always loved horror movies and have never really understood why, so I wanted to do a project on the motivation behind watching horror movies,” said Sosnowik, 17.

Her take on education:
While her project was a bit “unconventional” for an all-girls religious school, Sosnowik said the administration was very supportive and helpful. She said her favorite subject is calculus, and she credits the school’s math teacher, Mila Klahr, for making teens think.

“She never gives you an equation without showing the derivation behind it and how it builds on the theorems you already learned, so you really see the process,” Sosnowik said.

She believes that today’s schools place too much pressure on students to be involved in as many extracurricular activities as possible, in order to show diversity of interests to colleges.

“I think it’s a given everyone in the world is interested in more than just one thing,” she said. “I have other interests, but why can’t I share those, in the small amount of free time I have, with family and friends?”

Nakul Gupta

Farmingdale High School

Project title: Employing siRNA to recruit KCNQ1 through microRNA pathways: Implications for Long QT Syndrome

His project:

The mysterious nature of cardiac arrest was the driving force behind Gupta’s project.

Long QT Syndrome, a condition that can result in severe arrhythmia, occurs when a potassium channel, KCNQ1, is inhibited, resulting in a prolonged QT interval. The QT interval is the measure of time in a heart’s electrical cycle that represents depolarization and polarization of the left and right ventricles.

Gupta hypothesized that repressing an inhibitor of KCNQ1 — microRNA-133 — could fix that interval.

To test his belief, he inserted a silencing RNA strand, or siRNA, into rat myocardium cells. “The inhibitor that causes the problems leading to Long QT was repressed, supporting the hypothesis,” said Gupta, 17.

His take on education:

Gupta’s favorite educator is science teacher Peter Macchia, who was his academic adviser but never taught him in an actual class.

“Mr. Macchia had an unbelievably unique excitement for almost everything,” he said. “His enthusiasm was so transparent that it gave me more motivation to succeed.”

Gupta also said that collaborative learning in class has been a particularly important tool for him. Many times, he believed he learned more from his peers than his teachers.

“Instead of wasting time during study halls, students can get tutored by peers who are strong in that subject,” he said. “For example, an AP Chemistry student can tutor a struggling first-year chemistry student. The tutor is reinforcing his or her knowledge of the subject by teaching it, and the tutoree will indubitably improve.”

Julia Zhuang


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Great Neck North High School

Project title: Analysis of Cascadia Episodic Tremor and Slip events using time-dependent displacement and strain-fields derived from GPS data

Her project:

Zhuang, 17, recalled periodically feeling small earthquakes during the four years she lived in Washington state, and was eager to learn more about crustal activity in that region.

Her project explored Episodic and Tremor Slips (ETS), a seismological phenomenon in which tectonic plates subtly move westward instead of eastward, within a western portion of the United States known as Cascadia. Strain-axes maps, which she said illustrate spatial directions and types of crustal deformation, have yet to be used in ETS analysis and could provide valuable insight, she determined.

“All ETS events were found to share some variation of the arrangement where pure latitudinal compression in the western part of the region lies adjacent to an area of pure extension to the east,” Zhuang said.

Her take on education:

Great Neck North science teacher Alan Schorn is Zhuang’s favorite teacher, she said, describing his ability to make classes engaging with demonstrations ranging from spinning bicycle wheels to sitting on a board of nails.

“He always encouraged the class to pour their blood, sweat and tears into every problem, to not give up when we failed to grasp the solution, and to exhaust all possible approaches we could think of before asking for the answer,” she said.

To improve schools, Zhuang suggested increasing the difficulty and quality of math classes.

“At least in my experience, advanced classes in science, English and social studies generally became challenging enough to be interesting by 10th grade, if not earlier,” she said. “The full potential for learning in math classes, however, was not really realized until 11th grade.”

Corey Wald

Wellington C. Mepham High School in North Bellmore

Project title: The sky’s the limit — An investigation of cloud cover on Major League Baseball

His project:

Wald definitely hit a homer with his research project.

His work explored whether varying degrees of cloud cover during daytime baseball games favored batters or pitchers and what effect it had on fielders. He studied more than 5,000 Major League Baseball games from 2007 through 2010, using data from baseball-reference.com and the National Climatic Data Center, entering it all into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet.

“The overall results suggest clearer conditions tend to favor the pitcher in day games, while cloudier day games tend to favor the batter,” said Wald, 17.

His take on education:

The teacher who has made the biggest impact on him, Wald said, is David Kommor, a Mepham research teacher whose goal is for teens to learn because they are “genuinely interested.”

“One may think that having class at 7:30 a.m., the teacher would be less than 100 percent, being tired and unenergetic,” Wald said. “Not Dr. Kommor, as he is Mepham’s version of the Energizer Bunny. . . . He is always one of the first teachers in the building with a cup of coffee and smile on his face.”

To improve today’s schools, Wald suggests offering classes that are more aligned with students’ various career interests — such as bioengineering, pre-law and medicine, and teaching.

“It doesn’t really make sense that high school students must take four years of English and history, but only two or three years of math and science in order to graduate,” he said.

Sanjula Singhal

Ward Melville High School
East Setauket

Project title: Novel technology for brand protection and anti-counterfeiting measures using fluorophore and DNA

Her project:

Singhal believes her research project could save the reputations of countless companies.

She proposed using DNA and fluorophore, a compound that fluoresces under ultraviolet lights, to create unique labels that bind to various materials. These markers would act as a “rapid” anti-counterfeiting method using the fluorophore, she said, and offer a further confirmation using DNA analysis.

Singal worked on the project at Applied DNA Sciences in Stony Brook starting last spring, under the guidance of Karim Berrada, who is the company’s director of DNA formulations.

“The next phase in improving this technology is to create a commercially viable product, which can reduce issues relating to counterfeiting in the global market,” said Singhal, 17.

Her take on education:

Singhal largely credits her interest in science to her school’s InSTAR science research program, which she said prepares students for science competitions such as Intel and Toshiba’s ExploraVision, among others. Her favorite teacher is Advanced Placement literature teacher Terri Etheridge, who she said makes lessons interesting while still covering the required material.

“Ms. Etheridge takes us through the material, adding in some humor, and allows us to discuss the material and its significance — so the students are able to make their conclusions, then expand on those by listening and responding to the conclusions of others,” she said.

One aspect of education that today’s schools should improve upon, Singhal said, is encouraging students to get more outside exposure in fields in which they are interested. In 2011, she interned at Curefab, a biomedical company in Germany, that allowed her to see science as it is applied in a real-world setting.

Through such opportunities, Singhal said, “students would be better prepared for future jobs and would have an opportunity to learn how to communicate with other people in a professional setting.”

Robert Tannenbaum


Half Hollow Hills High School East

Dix Hills

Project title: Enhancement of graphene-based supercapacitor devices in both symmetric and asymmetric electrochemical cell environments

His project:

The goal of Tannenbaum’s project was to create a more effective battery-like device that could not only be more effective than current-day batteries, but highly flexible. He developed a supercapacitor, a tool offering high electrical capacitance in a small package, using spongelike graphene that itself could physically fold in an effort to increase convenience.

“My phone always died, so I’ve always wanted to look into energy research,” said Tannenbaum, 17. Of his project’s findings, he said: “I was able to create a cell to light an LED bulb to show that it’s able to hold a charge.”

His take on education:

Tannenbaum credits his school’s research program director, Michael Lake, for pushing pupils to understand their projects inside and out before presentations in competitions.

He also believes that schools should encourage more participation in science research.

“If schools don’t have one, they should definitely look into getting one,” Tannenbaum said of research programs. “It opens students up to opportunities they wouldn’t have otherwise. Before getting involved in ours, I knew very little of the Intel and Siemens competitions.”

Kavita Jain

Smithtown High School West

Project title: Demonstrating relationships between the morphology of the trigeminal system and feeding performance in the American alligator: A new tool for understanding feeding evolution

Her project:

Jain studied what she calls one of the most important traits in vertebrates: feeding behavior.

Her project focused on alligators, which are part of a reptile group that includes extinct dinosaurs called archosaurs, and presented a new way to evaluate the feeding performance for these organisms.

To do this, she used correlations between histological characteristics of the skull, the vertebrate cranial nerve, and body characteristics such as body size, bite force and jaw adductor muscles.

“To find this method, I used computer rendering techniques with CT scans and gross dissections of American alligator specimens,” said Jain, 17.

Her take on education:

Jain said Smithtown West research teacher Joanne Figueiredo has provided her with the utmost advice and constructive criticism, whether the topic is building a cardboard oven or studying archosaur evolution.

“From the first day I met her, she has shown unprecedented enthusiasm and support for any project I tackle,” she said. “Her passion to help anyone, a student or the community, is exemplary and has taught me always to appreciate what I have, even in hardship.”

When it comes to academic success, Jain said it is important for pupils to push themselves.

“I think that by taking the toughest classes my school offers, I have been able to work to my potential and have realized that I can do so much more,” she said. “As the years in high school went on, I knew that even if I took more classes, harder classes, I would be able to succeed if I tried my best.”

Jacob Wax


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Harborfields High School
Greenlawn

Project title: Investigating the sensitivity and specificity of the potentiometric biosensor mechanism through bacteria and bacterial spore cross-testing

His project:

Wax’s work focused upon improving testing capabilities of biosensors by cross-testing with different bacteria and bacterial spores, examining whether the device could potentially differentiate between the two.

Research on the potentiometric biosensor has been taking place for a number of years at Stony Brook University, Wax said, and his work builds upon that.

“Ultimately, we were able to conclude that the biosensor can indeed detect the presence of a certain bacteria in a solution,” said Wax, 17. “We also determined that the bacteria could specifically differentiate between two similarly shaped bacteria/bacterial spores.”

His take on education:

Wax said he can’t highlight a favorite teacher at Harborfields: All of them have been accessible and knowledgeable, and every class has offered him new and unique challenges.

“I would certainly characterize myself as a math and science kid, but I have learned so much from classes outside of math and science — outside of my comfort zone,” he said. “If anything, I believe my comfort zone has widened to encompass every area I have studied.”

He also credits the school’s director of research, Michael Pinto, who he said helped him throughout the Intel process. He spoke of the importance of better-funded research programs at schools.

“I believe much more funding needs to go toward science research,” Wax said. “Our country needs scientists and engineers to keep up with today’s fast-paced world. Without research opportunities for our country’s younger generations, we will fall behind.”

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