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At Nassau science fair at Old Bethpage, acid in rain is food for brain

Smiti Shah, an eighth-grader at JFK Middle School

Smiti Shah, an eighth-grader at JFK Middle School in Bethpage, receives first place in the middle school category at the Nassau County Science Competition at Old Bethpage Village Restoration on Sunday, June 8, 2014. Credit: Steve Pfost

Poster boards displaying terms most people would find challenging to pronounce -- let alone research -- filled Old Bethpage Village Restoration Sunday for the second annual Nassau County Science Competition.

The competition, organized by The Center for Science Teaching and Learning -- a nonprofit organization in Rockville Centre -- in partnership with Nassau County, included more than 400 middle and high school students from 50 schools. More than 70 judges volunteered their time.

Ray Ann Havasy, the center's director, said the event was the only countywide competition of its kind in the state. "We all need to learn and to understand why science is critical in our world," Havasy said. "The United States is losing out on research and development. . . . If we don't find the people to keep that going, we'll fall rapidly behind."

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano said the event was "a wonderful opportunity" for students "to showcase the projects that they have worked so hard on."

Students competed in categories including molecular biology, social science and engineering. They were judged based on their hypothesis' originality, research, procedure, organized data and insightful analysis.

First-, second- and third-place prizes were awarded by category in both middle and high school, along with overall winners. All winners received cash prizes, including $300 each for first place.

Smiti Shah, 13, of Bethpage, won first place in the overall middle school competition by analyzing how temperature affects the acidity of precipitation.

Smiti, an eighth-grader at John F. Kennedy Middle School in Bethpage, collected rainwater and tested its acidity with litmus strips. "I found out that acid dissociates faster at a colder temperature," said Shah, adding that she wanted to develop a chemical that counteracted acidity to "balance out equilibrium of the water and create a safe environment for biodiversity."

First-place overall high school winner Abrar Nadroo, 16, of Syosset, was drawn to research corneal scarring -- a problem faced by many who have glaucoma and cataract surgery.

The Syosset High School junior focused on preventing a cell from turning into scar tissue and reverse-engineering scar tissue. Nadroo worked under the mentorship of Dr. J. Mario Wolosin, a professor of ophthalmology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, he said.

"I was fortunate enough to gain access to his lab," said Nadroo, adding that he worked 12-hour days during winter break to collect data. "I look forward to the other great opportunities my research may be able to bring me."Other middle school projects included examining the effects of caffeine on the heart rate of water fleas and effects of video games on hand-eye coordination. Some high school projects focused on comparing sound waves produced immediately before car crashes and in normal driving conditions to determine the imminence of auto accidents, and the effects of cleaning products on DNA at crime scenes.

Many students said they had to overcome challenges to conduct their research.

Kanav Gupta, a 16-year-old junior at Jericho High School, who studied a compound that can be combined with cancer drugs to prevent cells' resistance to the drugs, said physical endurance was a challenge.

"You have to have a very stable hand," said Gupta, who seeded cells in a laboratory at St. John's University, overseen by Dr. Zhe-Sheng Chen, a cancer pharmacology professor. "Your shoulder is dead by the end."

For Rachel Kogan, Tessa Peierls and Lena Kogan, all 17 and juniors at Paul D. Schreiber High School in Port Washington, calculations to determine the decrease in concentration of the drug metoprolol tartrate after it reacts with aspirin were tough, because the group was using a less-sophisticated spectrophotometer meant for high school students.

Undeterred, the students sent their research to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said Lena Kogan, who is not related to Rachel. "We encouraged them to change their label on metoprolol tartrate to say that it should be taken two hours apart from aspirin," she said.

Patrick Cadet, an associate biology professor and senior researcher at SUNY Old Westbury's Neuroscience Research Institute, said he enjoyed judging the high school biology competition.

"I'm very impressed at the level of their knowledge," he said of the participants. "Just by looking at the students' work, that may even stimulate me to incorporate some new ideas for my research."

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