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Albertson teen a finalist in national search for top youth scientist

Lucy Zha is one of two finalists from

Lucy Zha is one of two finalists from Long Island in the Regeneron Science Talent Search competition.  Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

First of three in a series on the Regeneron Science Talent Search.

The Wheatley School senior Lucy Zha will be among 40 finalists competing virtually next week for awards of up to $250,000 in the prestigious Regeneron Science Talent Search competition.

Zha, whose school is in the East Williston district, was chosen for her research on the impact of plant-based chemicals on cancer cells. The Science Talent Search recognizes some of the brightest research minds in the country.

Zha was mentored by SUNY Old Westbury biology professor Wei Zhu.

The finalists were chosen from more than 1,700 applicants. The awards start at $40,000 for 10th place; each finalist already has received $25,000. Students can use the money to further their education, said Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Regeneron and the Society for Science, which runs the competition.

The top 10 awards will be announced during a livestreamed virtual awards ceremony on March 17.

About Zha

Outside the classroom, Zha likes to hike in the woods, searching for unusual rocks to collect and photograph.

The favorite find for the 17-year-old from Albertson is gneiss, a rock that will bend and morph but not succumb to strong underground stress. As a first-generation immigrant whose parents are from China, she said she can relate to that spirit of resilience.

Zha persevered through years of research and was challenged during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 as her school, as well as her lab at SUNY Old Westbury, shut down in the final months of her project, she said. As an elective, Zha took science research, which included entering the competition as part of the course.

Zha's project examined how two chemicals extracted from plants could be used to treat childhood brain cancer. She performed a study to test their synergistic effect on cancer cells and on zebrafish larvae.

"This recognition as a Regeneron finalist has made all of our school community proud," said D.J. Paulson, a science research teacher at The Wheatley School, "and we wish her the best of luck in the second part of the competition."

Zha on her project

My project focused on finding an effective treatment for neuroblastoma, which is one of the most common childhood brain cancers. I found that curcumin and capsaicin, two chemicals extracted from plants — the spices of turmeric and pepper — were able to stop the tumor development. However, I did find that curcumin at high concentrations can have some toxicity on hypothalamic cells, which are cells in our brain that are crucial to maintaining the equilibrium of our body. Those results combined can raise caution to the clinical feasibility of the two chemicals and signal the need for further research.

How did you choose this topic?

One of my very close relatives was diagnosed with thyroid cancer when I was a freshman in high school. As the only member of my family who was fluent in English at that time, I was recruited to be the only one to go to Costco and find supplements to help my relative to recover. So when I was going down the Costco aisle, I spotted curcumin on the shelf. I was surprised because turmeric would be something that usually appears in my diet. Why would it be on a medicine aisle at Costco? So I researched the chemical and found out it has some anti-cancer and neuroprotective properties, and I formulated my whole hypothesis from there and conducted my experiments.

Did the coronavirus pandemic impact your project?

No. The lab was closed in March, but my research results already showed that curcumin and capsaicin can reduce the cell survival rate for the cancer cells. I wanted to know why and how the chemicals were able to do that. The pandemic actually allowed me to concentrate and focus more on my research study on how to analyze my results and do background research, and eventually I was able to go back to the lab when it reopened in the summer and finish the rest of my experiments.

How long did your project take?

I started this project when I was 15. The whole research process took about a year. The time I spent in the lab should be about 300 hours, and outside the lab setting — in terms of the time I spent on analyzing results and doing background research and drafting the paper — that should be another 350 hours.

Where do you hope your research will lead?

The intent of my research was to find an alternative to the traditional chemotherapeutic approach to treating neuroblastoma, and I hope further research can find ways to amplify the anti-cancer effects and minimize the side effects of the two chemicals — curcumin and capsaicin — of my study, which can make them better candidates for treating neuroblastoma.

What are your other interests?

In my free time, I like to collect rocks. I am a very avid hiker, and unlike most tourists who like to buy travel souvenirs or take photos, I like to go into the woods and collect rocks. Rocks reveal a place in history and are millions of years in the making, and I take joy in finding the geological history that rocks reveal.

Tell us about your future plans

I will be pursuing science research in college, possibly with an environmental science major. I have not heard anything from colleges, so I can’t really offer any information on that one. I was selected to be one of eight students to represent the U.S. at the 2020 Earth Science Olympiad. I am passionate about many urgent environmental issues in the world, such as freshwater contamination and the impact of climate change on bird migration.

About Regeneron Science Talent Search

The 40 finalists were selected from 1,760 applications received from 611 high schools across 45 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and 10 countries. They were chosen based on their research skills, academics, innovative thinking and promise as scientists, according to Regeneron, the sponsor and a pharmaceutical company based in Tarrytown.

About Lucy Zha

  • Senior, The Wheatley School, East Williston district, Nassau County
  • GPA: 4.3 out of 4.3
  • Book Club president
  • Student Senate (class representative 2019-20; treasurer 2020-21)
  • Intercultural Unity Club
  • National Honor Society

Project title: Investigating the Therapeutic Potential of Curcumin and Capsaicin: A Comparative Study on Neuroblastoma and Hypothalamic Cells

Where to watch the virtual finals: Register at https://ssp.6connex.com/event/virtual/vsts/login to attend the Virtual Public Exhibition of the original research projects of the Regeneron finalists, from March 14 to 31.

Meet the finalists: Viewers can ask finalists questions live online at their booths from 2 to 4 p.m. on March 14.

The ceremony: The Winners Award Ceremony will be livestreamed at 8 p.m. on March 17 at: https://ssp.6connex.com/event/virtual/vsts/login

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