Oceanside High School student researcher places No. 2 at international science fair


“I think she’s destined for something great,” Oceanside High School Research Coordinator Heather Hall said.

Senior Sarah Romanelli — an OHS stage-play producer and performer, scientific researcher and Pathfinder Award winner — can add another achievement to the list. Last month, her research into treatment-resistant forms of leukemia was awarded second place in the field of translational medical science at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

The fair, May 14 to 19 at the Los Angeles Convention Center, brought in more than 1,800 students from 79 countries. Romanelli’s project, which focused on chemotherapy-immune mutations in leukemia patients, ranked second among 60 in her field.

“I wasn’t really expecting to win anything,” Romanelli told the Herald. “I was just happy to be there.”

“She was shocked,” Hall said, recalling the moment Romanelli’s name was announced. “You could see her face on the big screen. She looked like, ‘How did I get here?’ It was cute.”

The 17-year-old, who has been involved in more than 35 stage plays, was inspired to work on the project after a fellow actress left a production to be treated for leukemia.

Romanelli spent two summers at Columbia University, where she developed her findings under the tutelage of Dr. Adolfo Ferrando. She is the youngest student to do medical research there, according to Kathryn Chapman, the Oceanside School District’s science director, and Columbia has asked her to come back to continue her work.

“Our research department has always been strong,” Chapman said. “But this year we’ve had students who are just doing an amazing job, and their hard work and research is being recognized.”

Romanelli was named a Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology semifinalist in October, but joined even more elite company when the same project earned her a trip to California.

The high school’s research division had previously had seven students compete in ISEF since the fair’s founding in 1950. This year it sent two more. In addition to Romanelli, senior Kristian Nilsen’s project, on developing new manufacturing techniques for cutting-edge microchip material, also received the honor.

Romanelli’s research may eventually be applied in clinical trials. “It bridges the gap between research and the clinical setting,” explained Hall.

The first-place winners were Macinley Butson, from Australia, whose project involved breast cancer treatment, and Jeremiah Pate, who focused on Parkinson’s disease.

The fair was as much a networking event for the young scientists as it was a ceremony recognizing their award-winning work. “Intel does a good job of taking care of the students and treating them like rock stars,” Hall said.

Romanelli is an aspiring pediatric oncologist, and the award and connections made at the fair will no doubt make that goal more achievable. “She has [an] amazing connection [with] her mentor, and the judges are renowned scientists from around the world,” Hall noted, adding that many of the scientists hand out business cards at the event. Romanelli will study biology at Emory University in the fall.

“I can’t wait to hear about all of her adventures,” Hall said excitedly, “and hopefully she’ll take an Oceanside research student in her lab. It would be a nice, lovely circle.”