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Hewlett High seniors win Siemens grand prize

Hewlett High School students and winners of the

Hewlett High School students and winners of the 2013 Siemens Competition in Math, Science, and Technology, Priyanka Wadgaonkar, 16, JiaWen Pei, 17, and Zainab Mahmood, 17, are shown at George Washington University in Washington, DC. (Dec. 10, 2013) Credit: Evelyn Hockstein

Three George W. Hewlett High School students won the $100,000 grand prize Tuesday in the Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology -- making the high school the first ever to win back-to-back team victories in the premier national research contest.

The seniors -- Priyanka Wadgaonkar, 16, JiaWen Pei, 17, and Zainab Mahmood, 17 -- found that plants with multiple copies of genes that help with ozone tolerance are more resistant to environmental impacts. Their findings have implications for effects from drought and pollution to salt and bacteria, potentially lessening crop losses.

"We were really ecstatic and incredibly excited," Wadgaonkar said after the announcement at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. "We had the chance to represent our school and we were happy to prove that research can be accomplished everywhere."

Student researchers at Hewlett High conduct their research in the high school's lab, unlike those at many Long Island schools, who partner with universities to do their work for such competitions.

"It is a historic accomplishment and just absolutely amazing that our students continue to achieve at such a high level," principal Ted Fulton said.

Joy Ward, an associate professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Kansas, was among the judges. She said the team exhibited remarkable levels of cooperation, dedication and passion.

"Future applications of this important foundational research may add to our understanding of reducing the negative effects of ozone on crop production," she said.

The Hewlett trio, who have worked together since they were freshmen, competed over four days against five other teams at the national finals.

Hewlett science research teacher Terrence Bissoondial, the group's mentor, said they showed "equal strength" in defending their research, and the judges noted their teamwork.

"Besides knowing very well their project, they [the judges] just knew they worked so fluently as a group," Bissoondial said.

The three are good friends and are all on the varsity fencing team. They spent weekends together perfecting their project.

"It is very rewarding to know that all of this hard work . . . has paid off," Pei said.

Mahmood said she and her teammates collaborated well with Bissoondial, who would push them, sometimes giving them wrong answers to challenge them to find mistakes and defend their research.

"We managed to get this far and that impressed the judges," Mahmood said. "We found something novel that no one had ever thought of."

This year, Hewlett High School had four teams -- including the national winners -- named as Siemens semifinalists and regional finalists. A record 2,440 students nationwide registered for the 2013 competition.

Fulton credited Bissoondial for shepherding the program and its students. In 2010, the teacher was named a Siemens Teachers as Researchers, or STARs, fellow.

"It is because of Dr. Bissoondial's expertise and skill set that our school's in-house science research program has produced the most semifinalists and finalists in the nation over the past couple of years," Fulton said.

William Gil, 18, of Valley Stream, a member of Hewlett's grand-prize-winning 2012 team, along with Jeremy Appelbaum and Allen Shin, said Bissoondial would grill him and his teammates about every aspect of their work to ensure they were ready for a judge's questions.

It worked, he said, and also sparked Gil's own interest in biomedical engineering. He now is a freshman at Johns Hopkins University. That team won the $100,000 prize for research involving a plant protein with potential for fighting cancer.

"I can't thank him enough for what he did for my life," Gil said.

Eric Chen, a senior at Canyon Crest Academy in San Diego, Calif., won this year's $100,000 individual grand prize for his discovery of potent influenza endonuclease inhibitors, which could be used to develop anti-flu drugs.

In addition to the $100,000 grand prizes in the individual and team categories, 10 other scholarship awards were given -- for $50,000, $40,000, $30,000, $20,000 and $10,000.

The Siemens Competition, launched in 1998, is one of the two best-known student research contests in the country.

Funding is provided by a German-based electronics corporation of the same name, and the contest is managed by the Manhattan-based College Board, which sponsors the SAT and other exams. With Jo Napolitano

The Winners

Zainab Mahmood, 17, of Hewlett, is a member of the National Honor Society, a Euro-Challenge semifinalist, recipient of the United States Army Award and second-place winner of the Long Island Science and Engineering Fair. In her free time, she volunteers at the Franklin Early Childhood Center and plays varsity lacrosse. She plans to pursue a career in engineering.

JiaWen Pei, 17, of Valley Stream, has a longstanding interest in biomedical sciences and aspires to become a physician. Captain of Hewlett High's fencing team, she also is a member of the National Honor Society, the Foreign Language Honor Society and the school chorus and orchestra.

Priyanka Wadgaonkar, 16, of Woodmere, said her parents' work as a cell biologist and a gastroenterologist sparked her interest in science, as well as her aspiration to become an emergency room physician. She is a recipient of the George Eastman Young Leaders Award and chair of the school's Cabaret Night Business Committee.

The winning team's project: The effects of ozone on plants' growth and development

Ozone is one of the most toxic air pollutants to plants, causing billions of dollars in annual crop losses. The Hewlett team found a gene called OZS that correlates with a plant's tolerance to ozone. If a plant loses this gene, it becomes more susceptible to ozone.

The implication: This gene may play a role in plants' ability to withstand other environmental stresses. While more analysis is needed, if the OZS gene confers resistance, plants could be made more resistant if more copies of the gene were added to a crop by selective breeding or genetic engineering, curtailing crop loss.

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