Katherine St George, John F. Kennedy High School’s 2020 valedictorian, was named among the top 10 finalists of the Regeneron Science Talent Search competition on Wednesday, placing higher than any other participant in Kennedy history. Her sixth-place prize for her research on the relationship between epilepsy, diet and caffeine consumption awarded her $80,0000.
“I was shocked. I was just speechless,” said St George, 18, of Merrick. “I was just happy to be a finalist; to interact with some of the most intelligent kids in the country.”
For her project, titled “The Ketogenic Diet Ameliorates the Effects of Caffeine in Seizure Susceptible Drosophilia Melanogaster,” St George used female fruit flies to observe the impact that caffeine consumption — which usually heightens convulsive symptoms — and the ketogenic diet have on seizures.
She concluded that consuming more fat and fewer carbohydrates counteracts the negative effects of caffeine, adding that “keto is an affective, non-medicinal” treatment for epilepsy. St George’s project was the first investigation into the relationship between keto and caffeine, confirming the diet’s anti-convulsive properties.
In total, St George estimated that she spent more than 400 hours on her project. She studied under Dr. Theodore Brummel, a LIU biology professor. She plans on putting the prize money towards college, she said, and will be attending Columbia University this fall.
The final stages of the Science Talent Search, which are usually held in Washington, D.C., were held virtually this year, and organizers worked to make it “just as special as any other year,” St George said. Finalists were sent microphones, webcams and lighting equipment to stage a four-minute video for judges. They also received a plethora of goodies, including Air Pods, an iPad and personalized artwork, as well as enjoying a series of fun virtual activities.
The competition also involves professionals in science fields, who held “nuanced, in-depth” discussions with finalists about their projects, St George said. “They’re such high levels in their fields, and they want to talk to you about what you did,” she added.
The Society for Science & the Public runs the competition annually. St George was named a finalist alongside graduate Andrew Brinton, who received $25,000. Her sixth-place win puts her above Kennedy’s previous top finisher Adam Solomon, who won eighth place in 2006.
Kennedy was among only a handful of high schools across the country to boast more than one finalist in the highly prestigious science competition. Of the 300 semifinalists selected from nearly 2,000 applicants nationwide, only 40 are named finalists.
Kennedy participants worked under the supervision of Barbi Frank in the Advanced Science Research class. The students, who numbered a dozen in the 2019-2020 class, start their research during freshman year and put hundreds of hours of work into their projects, which often have practical, potentially world-changing implications.
“I’m so proud of her. She really followed her passion and never gave up,” said Frank, who was communicating with the ASR class as the “exciting” and “unbelievable” results came in.
After congratulations were passed between peers, Frank said St George and Brinton left her with one pronging question: “’When are we helping the juniors?’”