George W. Hewlett High School students Jiawen Pei, Zainab Mahmood...

George W. Hewlett High School students Jiawen Pei, Zainab Mahmood and Priyanka Wadgaonkar stand with their presentation boards during the Siemens Foundation Competition at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. (Nov. 16, 2013) Credit: Don Wright

Three Long Island girls are advancing to the final round of the Siemens science competition, the prestigious national research contest for high schools.

The team's victory, announced Saturday night, gives George W. Hewlett High School a chance to defend its national title and earn the grand prize: a $100,000 scholarship.

Seniors JiaWen Pei, 17, Priyanka Wadgaonkar, 16, and Zainab Mahmood, 17, researched a way, through gene copying, to make plants more resistant to environmental impacts ranging from drought and pollution to salt and bacteria.

"It feels amazing. It's kind of surreal," said Mahmood, minutes after learning her team won. She said the team was inspired to address threats to crops, particularly among farmers.

"Farmers work so hard to produce these crops, and the crops end up dying from environmental stress," she said. "If we can find a way to make crops more resistant, we can help feed the population."

The budding scientists began their research as freshmen, Hewlett science research teacher Terrence Bissoondial said.

"The level of intensity, involvement and expertise from these kids showed," he said.

Finalists in the Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology presented their research this weekend to a panel of judges from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Brooke McCartney, associate professor at the college's Department of Biological Sciences, praised the Hewlett team.

"This work addresses a fundamental environmental problem and its potential effect on our future food supply," she said.

Eight Long Island students were named regional finalists last month, including a second Hewlett team that also focused on plants.

Those finalists were: Hewlett seniors Michael Green, Ayman Haider, and Stephen Ng; Sahil Abbi, a sophomore from Herricks High School in New Hyde Park; and Arjun Kapoor, a junior at The Wheatley School in Old Westbury.

The winning Hewlett team will face five other teams Dec. 7-10 at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

This year, Long Island as a region continued to excel in the Siemens competition. Judges named 67 students from Nassau and Suffolk counties as semifinalists -- more than one-fifth of 331 semifinalists nationwide.

Students at Hewlett conduct research entirely within the school's labs; in many other districts, students work at nearby universities and outside research centers.

Last year, three Hewlett seniors won the $100,000 top prize for research involving a plant protein with potential for fighting cancer.

That team and others, Wadgaonkar said, have helped mold an acclaimed research program.

"We owe a lot of our project to them," she said.

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