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56 LI students are 2017 Siemens Competition semifinalists

Seven Half Hollow Hills school district students were named semifinalists in the prestigious 2017 Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology on Tuesday Oct. 17, 2017. Fifty-six students in public and private schools on Long Island are among 491 semifinalists in the competition. (Credit: Newsday / Raychel Brightman)

Fifty-six students in public and private schools on Long Island were among 491 semifinalists named nationwide Tuesday in the prestigious 2017 Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology.

The contest, which awards two $100,000 grand prizes to an individual and to a team, honored students locally whose research touched on health and technological inquiries that range from lessening the symptoms of colorectal cancer to building faster-processing computers.

The Half Hollow Hills district has seven semifinalists — the most of any public school district on the Island — with six of those students at Half Hollow Hills High School East and one at Half Hollow Hills High School West.

“It’s a lot of effort and a lot of sacrifice on the kids’ end,” said Michael W. Lake, the district’s academic research director. “They’re spending a lot of their after-school and summer months taking on the project.”

The Herricks, Manhasset and Great Neck school systems each have six semifinalists, followed by the Jericho district, with four.

“These students have been working diligently since last year, reading journals, interviewing with mentors and getting accepted into labs,” said Renee Barcia, science research coordinator for Herricks High School.

The honorees on the Island were among 90 semifinalists statewide.

Tuesday’s announcement marks the first step toward the national finals. The contest will be winnowed down Wednesday when Siemens Competition organizers announce about 100 regional finalists across the country.

The competition, which the Siemens Foundation launched in 1999, invites students to tackle scientific and environmental obstacles that lead to findings with broad implications for addressing societal challenges.

Ultimately, top Siemens Competition prizes will be awarded at the national finals, scheduled Dec. 4-5 at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Joy and surprise were the dominant emotions in semifinalists’ science classrooms after the noon announcement.

Tong Ye, 15, a sophomore at Half Hollow Hills East, said she was “shocked and honored” to be recognized for her team’s work studying how to reduce the effects of titanium dioxide, a contaminant found in cosmetic products, on wildlife in waterways. Her team’s research focused on alleviating stress pathways in duckweed, the flowering plants commonly found in bodies of freshwater and wetlands.

“This is my first year working on any research project,” she said, noting she was humbled to be included with older students.

Michelle Xing, 17, a senior at Great Neck South High School, used nanofibers extracted from algae to absorb lead from water. The technique, she said, would facilitate the cost-effective removal of contaminants in waterways.

“In today’s world where water is so scarce, where water security is a huge problem, using nanofibers so cheap and so abundant in the world . . . is a very promising way to tackle this lead contamination problem,” she said.

A trio of Half Hollow Hills students researched replacing stainless steel with a plastic-graphene mixture for use in heat exchangers. The findings allow for a more cost-effective method to reduce the heat in a biodegradable way, and such devices would last longer. One of the plastics used in the mixture was polypropylene, a material used in cups at Starbucks and McDonald’s.

“I really learned about how something so simple and so prevalent is contributing to how industries are developing around the world,” said Kavya Rao, 16, a junior at Half Hollow Hills East.

Herricks junior Sahith Vadada, 16, and his two teammates focused their research on a 3-D fiber scaffold, used in tissue engineering, that supports the differentiation of dental pulp stem cells.

“I hope that eventually humans can have a cost-efficient and effective way for bio implants in the dental field, where teeth can just regenerate without the use of extensive surgical procedures,” Vadada said.

Semifinalists who are named regional finalists will submit their projects to experts at one of six universities across the nation, divided by region, and compete in virtual challenges during November.

Long Island semifinalists who are named regional finalists usually go on to compete at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, slated for Nov. 3-4, or at Carnegie Mellon University, scheduled Nov. 17-18.

The other regional competitions are at the University of Notre Dame, Nov. 3-4; the University of Texas at Austin and California Institute of Technology, both Nov. 10-11; and Georgia Institute of Technology, Nov. 17-18.

The national second-place award is $50,000 — again, one for an individual and one for a team. All other national finalists will receive $25,000.

Two or three students generally make up a team and they share team awards.

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