Student scientists John Yang, 18, and Kayla Neville, 16, pose...

Student scientists John Yang, 18, and Kayla Neville, 16, pose with the poster they used to present their findings about the toxicity levels of nanoparticles. (Jan. 5, 2012) Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

United by chance, two Long Island students spent last summer in a lab studying particles smaller than a human cell. The research has won them an award from national cancer-research groups -- recognition never before given to high schoolers.

Kayla Neville, 16, a junior at Commack High School, and John Yang, 18, a senior at Great Neck South High School, worked with an experimental nanoparticle at Stony Brook University, injecting it into human cells to see how much the body could tolerate.

The student scientists found that a human could withstand a tiny drop -- much more than that was toxic, Yang said. With the tests complete, they took a white piece of poster board and covered it with graphs and charts detailing their findings.

They presented the research at an annual convention given by the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. The judges at the Cincinnati conference were so impressed that they awarded it "Best Basic Research Poster." It was the first time the accolade went to anyone other than professional researchers.

"I didn't have an idea that we would have the possibility of winning such an award," Neville said. "It's an amazing feeling to know that your work was respected so highly by such distinguished researchers."

As part of the judging, Dr. Frank Biro, a Cincinnati pediatrician who organized the November conference, asked the teens to explain their project.

"Their concept of the ideas and the project was very sophisticated," Biro said. "They're really treading upon the frontiers of science with this project."

Through an internship sponsored by the Great Neck Breast Cancer Coalition and the Huntington Breast Cancer Action Coalition, Neville and Yang completed their research at Stony Brook under the supervision of biomedical engineering professor Balaji Sitharaman.

"They did quite well, for kids that young," Sitharaman said. "I was very impressed. They were able to grasp new concepts quickly even though they had little background with the technology."

If approved for humans, the nanoparticles can be injected into a body before an MRI to help make the image clearer and easier for doctors to read. That could allow physicians to spot previously hidden tumors. Or they could be used to deliver cancer-beating drugs, Sitharaman said.

Five other Long Island students attended the conference: Joshua Solomowitz, 17, and Megan Hansen, 16, Huntington High School juniors; Vita Jaspan, 17, a Great Neck South senior; Yonatan David, 16, a North Shore Hebrew Academy junior, and Melissa Wing, 16, a Northport High School junior.

Neville and Yang have just finished a draft of a research paper summarizing their work and plan to submit it to peer-reviewed journals. As for next summer, both plan to return to the Stony Brook lab.

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