Three young scientists from the Half Hollow Hills school district won the $100,000 top award Tuesday in the prestigious 2017 Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology for their research into cell division that could help find treatments to cancers, viruses and other diseases.
Juniors Jillian Parker, of Half Hollow Hills High School West, and Arooba Ahmed and Jiachen Lee, both of Half Hollow Hills High School East, all 16, share the scholarship prize in taking the top spot in the team category. Twelve other national finalists were on five two- or three-person teams from across the country.
“I never would have thought this would happen, because all the other projects were amazing,” Lee said, adding that the victory gives her and her teammates confidence to continue their work.
Andrew Komo, 17, a senior at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Maryland, won the $100,000 individual grand prize for his work using cryptography to protect online auctions from cheating and fraud. Five others were finalists in the individual category.
Siemens Foundation CEO David Etzwiler, in remarks leading up to the award announcement, told all 21 finalists, “Whether or not you choose to pursue a career in science, you must now understand that you are in an elite club of people who are and will disproportionately change our globe for the better.”
The Long Island trio’s breakthrough research of the protein CCDC11 could help find treatments for cancer, Huntington’s disease and Alzheimer’s, among other diseases, scientists said.
“For the first time, they showed that this protein is involved in cell division. That’s a major finding,” said Ken-Ichi Takemaru, an associate professor in Stony Brook University’s pharmacological sciences department who mentored the teens. “Their work has broad implications in three different diseases: cancer, neurodegenerative diseases and also infectious diseases.”
The two top teams were called to the stage of Jack Morton Auditorium at The George Washington University in D.C. by Jeniffer Harper-Taylor, the Siemens Foundation’s head of STEM programs. When she announced the second-place team, the reality of the grand prize took hold for the Long Island students.
Parker let out a squeal and threw her hands over her mouth. Before long, the three were in a group hug in front of the auditorium of parents, teachers and others and soon were presented with a giant foam mock-up of a check for $100,000.
The three thanked each other and their parents, as well as Takemaru and Michael Lake, academic research director for the Half Hollow Hills high schools.
Ahmed said she hopes the award helps their research receive recognition and encourages people to study basic science.
In an interview before the announcement, the three said their 10-hour days in the laboratory at SBU last summer turned into a bonding experience as they got to know each other over microscopes and during late-night Skype sessions.
“We just really wanted to have a fun time,” Lee said.
The teenage finalists gathered in the auditorium Tuesday morning, many accompanied by their parents and science research mentors, after four days of presentations and networking. Balloons and posters of the research projects decorated the lobby and medals with teal-colored ribbons hung from the students’ necks.
The students were brought on stage in groups to talk about their experience in Washington. Parker and Ahmed said their other extracurricular activities helped give them poise in presenting to judges. Parker is a dancer and Ahmed is on the debate team.
Both Lee and Parker had advice for other scientist wannabes.
“Never hold yourself back. You never know what you can accomplish,” said Lee. “It’s really great to surround yourself with people who are passionate about research.”
Parker advised: “When you think you’ve worked hard enough, keep going.”
Competition judge Dr. John Woolford, a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University, said of their work: “This could alert us to the fact that people who present with one disease or problem might have other seemingly unrelated problems. This could help us understand how different diseases stem from the same genetic mutation.”
Erika Lee, Jiachen’s mother, said the trio’s research is “a new way of thinking about curing disease.”
The road to the Siemens championship involved weeks of painstaking work in the lab and on submitting the entry. Pervez Ahmed, Arooba’s father, said he canceled the family vacation to Disney World so his daughter could do the research.
“We didn’t have to tell the girls to focus, to work. It was all self-motivated,” said Mark Parker, Jillian’s father.
Ahmed, Lee and Parker were among 11 Long Island students named regional finalists on Oct. 18. They presented their work virtually to judges at Carnegie Mellon and were chosen as national finalists on Nov. 20.
Once in Washington, they spent a couple of days getting to know the other 18 finalists before giving a 12-minute presentation to judges on Monday.
All three teenagers said they want to pursue science.
“She found what she loved and that makes me really happy,” said Adrianne Parker, Jillian’s mother. “It was a full-time job. For a 16-year-old to get up at 6:30 a.m. on summer vacation . . . She wanted to do it.”
Second place was awarded a $50,000 prize. The remaining projects won $25,000 each. A total of more than 1,800 projects were submitted to this year’s competition.
With Scott Eidler
Their winning research
Everyone’s cells divide, but sometimes something goes wrong.
That is the process studied by three Half Hollow Hills high school juniors whose group project won the 2017 Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology.
Cell division “is the basis of so many diseases,” said Jiachen Lee, who teamed up with Arooba Ahmed and Jillian Parker. “Cell division occurs constantly. It is so important, yet so little is understood about it.”
Their research showed that a protein called CCDC11 has a role in cell division that previously was unknown: When the level of CCDC11 is decreased in a cell, many cells cannot divide.
That’s a good thing in the case of cancer cells, if the inhibiting protein can be used to stop cancer from spreading. The same goes for viruses such as HIV.
The research also has applications for neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s, autism, schizophrenia and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, if altering the level of protein can help in the neuron pruning process that goes awry in those disorders, said Michael Lake, the Half Hollow Hills academic research director who worked with the trio.
Some researchers in the Netherlands are exploring the topic and will work with the students as they continue the research, Lake said. “There are so many lines we can go now,” he said, referring to ways to research the protein’s involvement in particular illnesses.
— Tamara Lytle