The Siemens Foundation and Discovery Education Nov. 6 in a joint statement announced the winners of the Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology regional finals at the University of Notre Dame and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with Indian American students Neil Wary and Swapnil Garg among the winners advancing to the national finals.

Wary, of Elmhurst, Ill., was named the individual winner at the UND regional while Garg, of Sunnyvale, Calif., was part of the winning team at the MIT regional.

Wary, a senior from the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, Ill., earned top individual honors and a $3,000 scholarship 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. “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.”

Wary, who has long been passionate about biology, said the science helps “us learn more about ourselves, and how to live a better life. There are a lot of things we can't control in our lives, but our own health and body shouldn't be one of them.”

Among his proudest accomplishments is having his research on epigenetic and regenerative biology published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal, PLOS ONE, the news release noted.

When he grows up, the Indian American director of his school’s STEM outreach program hopes to become a physician and scientist.

Garg and fellow high school classmate Katherine Tian of San Jose-based Harker School won the team category and will share a $6,000 scholarship for their project entitled, "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. “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.

Wary and Garg were among 101 students chosen from more than 1,860 submissions throughout the country for this year's competition (see India-West article here). The foundation announced 491 semifinalists before whittling the list down to the regional finalists.

Among the other Indian American and South Asian American regional finalists at UND and MIT who were not selected included Haran Kumar, Suraj Srinivasan, Sai Anantapantula, Arav Agarwal and Chittesh Thavamani at UND; and Nikhil Gopal, Anusha Mural and Evan Chandran at MIT.

The annual high school competition, which launched in 1999, honors the best and brightest students for their accomplishments in math and science – students who are changing the world for the better, the foundation said.

Students submit innovative individual and team research projects to regional and national levels of competition as they vie for college scholarships ranging from $1,000 up to $100,000, it said.

This year, for the first time, a new pricing structure will ensure that national finalists will receive a minimum of $25,000, according to Siemens.

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