9 LI teens regional finalists in Siemens Competition

Salonee Shah, 17, W. Tresper Clarke High School,

Salonee Shah, 17, W. Tresper Clarke High School, East Meadow: Team project searching for an ideal biological scaffold on which to grow skin tissue for burn victims. (Credit: Handout)

As teenage science whizzes introduced themselves at a Stony Brook University workshop last summer, Michelle Leonetti of Long Beach found herself impressed with the attitude of a fellow 12th-grader from East Meadow.

At one point, the other student, Salonee Shah, described her frustration at scoring what she considered a wholly inadequate 94 out of 100 on an Advanced Placement test in physics.

"Good work ethic!" Leonetti thought.

PHOTOS: Click to see photos of the LI teens in the Siemens Competition finals

After teaming up on a research project involving skin-tissue repairs, Leonetti and Shah now are celebrating their recent emergence as regional finalists in the national Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology. The Long Island pair are among nine area teens who will advance to regional competitions next month, mostly at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Teens who get through next month's judging will compete at the national level at New York University in December, either as teams or individuals, for scholarships of up to $100,000. All of the nation's 96 regional finalists win at least $1,000.

Ward Melville High School in Setauket produced three regional finalists - Ruoyi Jiang, Aneesh Sampath and Kevin Zhao - the most ever for that school. Manhasset High School has two competitors, Shaunak Bakshi and Peter Massey.

Other regional finalists are David Park of Herricks High School in New Hyde Park and Joshua Pfeffer of North Shore Hebrew Academy High School in Great Neck.

A strong work ethic is a must for the Siemens contest, which features two complete rounds of judging. Each round requires students to deliver PowerPoint presentations before adult audiences, and to appear before six-member panels of jurists for rapid-fire Q&A sessions.

"Rather than grueling, we like to think of it as an opportunity to excel," said Peter Guastella, a science research specialist at Manhasset High.

Students nationwide submitted a record 1,348 projects to the contest this year - up 12 percent from last year. Most projects involve a year or more of research, often at university labs.

For David Park, research has meant two-hour commutes between his Albertson home and Columbia University in Manhattan as often as five days a week last summer. Park has teamed up with a New Jersey student, Erica Chung, for a project that aims to prevent liver infections.

Despite the long hours, Park says he's never tired of working with his faculty mentor, Ilya Trakht, a Columbia medical researcher. While continuing his research this year, the 12th-grader also takes six college-level Advanced Placement courses, plays the violin and serves as opinion editor for his high school newspaper.

"I became so interested in what he was doing, I just wanted to learn more," Park said.

PHOTOS: Click to see photos of the LI teens in the Siemens Competition finals

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