South Asian American high schooler Arooba Ahmed, of Melville, N.Y., was part of the team that was named Dec. 5 the grand prize winner of the Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology by Siemens Foundation and Discovery Education. For winning the grand prize, the Pakistani American Ahmed, along with her teammates Jillian Parker and Jiachen Lee, both of Dix Hills, N.Y., will share a $100,000 prize.
Indian Americans also scored high in the national finals of the prestigious competition.
Jainil Sutaria, a senior at Ardsley High School in Ardsley, N.Y., took second place with Chelsea Wang and Rachel Li in the team competition and netted a $50,000 shared scholarship.
Sriharshita Musunuri, a senior at Henry M. Jackson High School in Mill Creek, Wash.; and Neil Wary, a senior at Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, Ill., each won a $25,000 scholarship in the individual competition.
Additionally, Swapnil Garg, a senior at The Harker School in San Jose, Calif.; and Rachana Madhukara, a sophomore at Canyon Crest Academy in San Diego, Calif., who participated on separate teams within the team competition, each won $25,000 shared scholarships.
The individual winner of the Siemens Competition, winning a $100,000 prize, was Andrew Komo of Bethesda, Md.
"All of the competitors' depth of knowledge and ability to grasp complex concepts gives us hope for the next generation of scientists," said Emilia Entcheva, lead competition judge and professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at George Washington University.
The grand prize-winning trio of Ahmed, Lee and Parker won for their project, which identified a protein that was not previously known to play a role in cell division, but could potentially play a role in a number of diseases, including Alzheimer's disease.
The project, "The Cilium and Centrosome Associated Protein CCDC11 is Required for Cytokinesis via Midbody Recruitment of the ESCRT-III Membrane Scission Complex,” led to the team finding that when the presence of a specific protein (CCDC11) is decreased in a cell, the division of cells that produces new cells cannot be carried out properly.
This finding has implications in understanding the genetic basis of many diseases, including neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, commonly known as ALS, and Huntington's disease, Siemens said in a news release.
While many proteins are known to be involved in successful cell division, this is the first time that CCDC11 has been shown to be part of this process, the foundation said.
CCDC11 is also known to be involved in early development to ensure that organs develop on the correct side of the body, it added.
Previous judging noted how this could help us understand how different diseases stem from the same genetic mutation, and alert us to the fact that people who present with one disease or problem might have other seemingly unrelated problems, according to the news release.
“Because of their extensive background research and well-executed set of experiments, Arooba, Jiachen and Jillian found a new function of the protein CCDC11 that could help us better understand complex genetic mutations that affect patients with a number of health issues, including cancer, neurological and viral diseases,” said competition judge Dr. Chadwick Hales, an assistant professor of neurology at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.
"I have no doubt that we will see great things from these young scientists in the future," Hales added.
Ahmed, a junior at Half Hollow Hills High School East in Dix Hills, N.Y., is working towards becoming a cardiologist or researcher, according to her Siemens Competition bio.
Her interest in science was sparked through visits to museums as a child and she quickly became a consumer of National Geographic and non-fiction literature, it said. She is a cross-country runner and participates in her school's speech and debate club. She was an octo-finalist in the New York State Debate Tournament, the bio added.
Sutaria was chosen as the team runner-up with Wang and Li for their project, “Synthesizing and Characterizing Novel Gelatin and Pluronic F127 Hybrid Hydrogels as a Barrier Membrane for Guided Bone Regeneration Following Periodontitis."
They developed a novel gel compound that acts as a barrier, preventing gum tissue from invading the bone tissue affected by gum disease, allowing guided regeneration of the bone surrounding the tooth root, the foundation noted.
“The team’s research is an important contribution to the field of restorative dentistry and our understanding of the barrier materials allowing guided bone regeneration. It could have an impact on the lives of millions suffering from periodontitis," said competition judge Dr. Janet Zoldan, assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin in the Department of Biomedical Engineering during the UT regional last month. “This project ultimately helps solve the tricky problem of having an effective barrier material that is strong enough to withstand the shearing forces applied on and by teeth yet degrades over time once bone is regenerated."
Sutaria has followed his interest in STEM and twice won silver medals at the International Genius Olympiad, according to the foundation. He also founded, and is president of, his school’s robotics club, and is co-president of “Ardsley Innovates,” a club aimed at teaching the novelties of technology to students.
Additionally, Sutaria has earned All-League and All-Section honors for fencing, and he competed at the Junior Olympics for fencing in 2017.
Musunuri won the $25,000 individual prize for her project, “Computational and Experimental Design of MIP Nanoparticles: A Novel Theranostic Solution to Detect and Neutralize Endotoxins.”
Her project addresses a difficult challenge faced in U.S. hospitals every day: gram-negative bacteria that causes sepsis which can cause organ failure in patients, and is the leading cause of death in U.S. hospitals. Lipopolysaccharides are harmful biomolecules found on the surface of gram-negative bacteria and are responsible for over 50 percent of sepsis cases, the joint news release said.
She designed a new polymer nanoparticle that captures the harmful LPS bacterial endotoxins and could be used to treat and diagnose the bacterial infection, it said.
“Sriharshita’s research leads to faster diagnostic testing in clinical settings that could reduce patient deaths from sepsis,” Dr. Brittany Needham, a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech, said in a statement at the regional final last month. “She approached this problem in a far more comprehensive way than others have and her method was particularly impressive. She figured out a way not only to detect this life-threatening bacteria, she also found a way to help prevent it.”
Wary was named a $25,000 winner for using CRISPR/Cas9 to investigate a rare life-threatening genetic disease called CHARGE syndrome in a project entitled, “Connecting the Chromatin Remodeler CHD7 in the Regulation of CHARGE Syndrome and Autism.”
His project used a groundbreaking new gene-editing tool called CRISPR/Cas9 to investigate a rare life-threatening genetic disease called CHARGE syndrome, the news release said.
CHARGE affects many areas of the body, and is characterized by impairments in vision and the central nervous system, heart defects, blockages of the nasal passages, growth retardation, genital abnormalities, ear anomalies and sometimes deafness, it said.
Using CRISPR, Wary developed a “disease-in-a-dish” model of CHARGE, recreating the genetic disorder in a petri dish to better understand it and to study potential treatments, according to Siemens.
Using the method, he discovered a unique link between the genetic mutations that cause CHARGE and blood vessel dysfunctions associated with heart and other vascular features that characterize the syndrome, it noted, adding that the student’s research could one day lay the groundwork for treating the disease.
“Neil Wary’s devotion to studying CHARGE syndrome — a life-threatening genetic disorder — was truly admirable,” said Dr. Pinar Zorlutuna, assistant professor in the Department of Aerospace and Mechanical engineering at Notre Dame, during the Notre Dame regional last month. “From designing his genetic model to conducting the experiment using the CRISPR gene-editing tool, Neil has done great work in discovering what could be a significant link between vascular dysfunctions and this devastating disease.”
Madhukara, along with Anlin Zhang and Kevin Ren, all students in San Diego, Calif., won a $25,000 team prize for their project, “Epidemic Dynamics on Symmetric Networks.”
Madhukara, Zhang and Ren applied mathematical models to better identify and analyze the movement of dangerous infectious disease, the news release said.
Recognizing the role that social interactions and social cliques, like families, groups or cities, play in the spread of disease, they created a new mathematical model to more precisely analyze the spread of infectious disease, it said.
"The results provide novel insights into the fascinating topic of how diseases spread that should concern us all, as we are more closely linked as humans than ever before,” said Dr. Richard Küng, a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Computational and Mathematical Sciences at Caltech, in a statement, during the Caltech regionals last month. "This work combines creativity in model design with a rigorous mathematical analysis.”
Garg and fellow high school classmate Katherine Tian won a $25,000 scholarship for their project, "Automated Clear Cell Renal Carcinoma Grade Classification with Prognostic Significance."
The team used computational techniques and machine learning to develop a potentially more accurate way to classify kidney cancer tumors as high- or low-grade — an important indication of how fast the cancer might spread. Kidney cancer is among the 10 most common cancers in both men and women, Siemens said.
The current system used to stage kidney cancer is highly subjective, which can lead to disagreement between pathologists on how to approach treatment, the foundation noted.
Garg and Tian’s classification method could provide a valuable, objective second opinion for pathologists, helping them make more accurate diagnoses and thus better treatment plans, according to the news release.
“I was particularly impressed with Katherine and Swapnil’s depth of understanding of renal carcinomas,” said competition judge Dr. Ky Lowenhaupt, lab manager and research specialist at MIT, during the MIT regional last month. “Because of their extensive background on the issue, they were able to use an existing strategy that, when applied to the problem of kidney cancer, is very cutting edge. They also clearly presented the strengths and limitations of their research, and how it could be applied in the future.”
Garg, a senior, decided to apply his passion for math to the problem of cancer after he learned that human error in tumor classification could negatively affect disease outcome, according to the foundation.
He wanted to develop an automated way to determine what type of treatment to pursue, and used his lifelong love of math to guide the way, it said. An aspiring math researcher, Garg was a top 10 finalist for the USA Computing Olympiad. He co-founded the Science Competitions Club, is co-president of the Quiz Bowl, and plays trumpet and tennis, his bio said.
The national competition, held at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., from Dec. 4 to Dec. 5, featured 21 high school competitors which came from a pool of more than 2,000 competitors nationwide.
Of the original field, 491 were selected as semifinalists and then that field was pared down to 101 before reducing it to the national finals field at six regional competitions.
The Siemens Competition, founded in 1999, is among the nation's premier science research competitions for high school students and seeks to promote excellence by encouraging students to undertake individual or team research projects.