Hewlett trio wins Siemens science contest

Jeremy Appelbaum, William Gill and Allen Shin, all 17 and seniors at George W. Hewlett High School, will split their scholarship award for team research revolving around a plant protein with potential for fighting cancer. Videojournalist: Jim Staubitser (Dec. 5, 2012)

advertisement | advertise on newsday

A trio of teenaged researchers from Long Island who rushed to redo part of their project destroyed by superstorm Sandy took a $100,000 grand prize Tuesday in the national Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology.

Jeremy Appelbaum, William Gil and Allen Shin, all 17 and seniors at George W. Hewlett High School, will split their scholarship award for team research revolving around a plant protein with potential for fighting cancer. The bulk of the work was conducted in a school lab capable of isolating genes from plants.

"All the work of three years finally paid off," Appelbaum said after he and his teammates accepted an oversized prize check before an applauding audience of 200 scientists and others in Washington, D.C.

The student researchers overcame a close call. Last month, shortly before they were to compete at a Siemens regional event, exhibit posters stored in the basement of Appelbaum's Woodmere home were ruined by floodwaters. Appelbaum found himself temporarily homeless, moving from one friend's house to another.

On top of that, Hewlett High, like many schools on the Island, shut down for eight days.

The teammates managed to whip together smaller substitute posters -- not as good as the originals, they thought, but as it turned out enough to win over the contest judges. High school administrators supported the teenagers' efforts, allowing them to use the building on weekends.

"We were impressed by the enthusiasm of the students and by the fact that they carried out their research entirely with the resources available at their high school laboratory," said one judge, Hanjo Hellman, an assistant professor of biological sciences at Washington State University.

Back in Hewlett, educators and the team's classmates savored the moment Tuesday. A particular point of pride is the lab, built five years ago as part of a major school renovation and equipped with a gel electrophoresis, which separates DNA, and a polymerase chain reaction, which amplifies genes.

"The years of dedication to building this research program, we've seen it reach the pinnacle," said Thomas Russo, the school principal and a former science chairman, who high-fived and pumped fists with students in hallways.

The school's science research teacher, Terrence Bissoondial, who was in Washington for the awards ceremony, said it was "quite amazing" that his students won, given that so many competitors had completed their projects in university labs. Bissoondial was a 2010 winner of a Siemens Founders Award, which is presented to teachers with outstanding records in encouraging student research.

The winning trio described Bissoondial as their inspiration, but also as a taskmaster who sometimes left them intimidated or irritated. Bissoondial acknowledged that his students were less than enthusiastic about the plant DNA project when he first proposed it, but that he knew the project would expand their understanding of molecular biology and teach them to think scientifically and overcome hurdles.

"They didn't want to work on plants," the teacher said. "It's not as sexy as viruses."

Appelbaum is a student tutor and member of his school's newspaper and volleyball team; he aspires to be a physician. Gil is president of a student leadership group, a volunteer for the American Cancer Society and a varsity fencer; he hopes to become a biomedical researcher. Shin, a volleyball player and participant in an annual mission trip to help impoverished areas, plans to become a doctor.

Tuesday's win continues a tradition for Long Island students. A Ward Melville High School senior won an individual $100,000 Siemens prize in 2009. Two seniors from Plainview-Old Bethpage/John F. Kennedy High School captured a $100,000 team award in 2007. Two seniors from the private Stella K. Abraham High School for Girls in Hewlett Bay Park did the same in 2001.

Twelve awards, ranging from $100,000 to $10,000, were presented Tuesday to the contest's national finalists in both individual and team categories, capping four days of project exhibitions and oral presentations.

The $100,000 individual prize went to Kensen Shi, a 12th-grader from College Station, Texas, for developing an improved method of robotic motion planning. Another senior, Raghav Tripathi of Portland, Ore., who trained at Stony Brook University, won a sixth-place $10,000 prize for identifying a potential anti-inflammatory painkiller.

The Siemens Competition, launched in 1998, is one of the two best-known student research contests in the country. Funding is provided by a German-based electronics corporation of the same name, and the contest is managed by the Manhattan-based College Board, which also sponsors the SAT and other exams.

This year's winning projects were selected from among 1,504 submissions. Regional finalists, including eight from Long Island, represented 25 states.

With Elaine S. Povich

You also may be interested in: