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'A dream come true'

Lynbrook High senior is a Regeneron scholar

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Throughout the summer, Lynbrook High School student Sara Bahri spent many late nights at the Weill Cornell Medical College’s Andersen Lab of Physiology and Biophysics, in Manhattan, poring over research documents as part of a major science experiment.

The hard work and effort paid off when Bahri was recently selected as one of 300 scholars in the Regeneron Science Talent Search 2020 competition. The contest is hosted by the Society for Science & the Public, and is one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious science and math competitions for students.

“Being selected as a Regeneron STS scholar truly feels like a dream come true,” said Bahri, 17, an LHS senior. “This is a very full-circle moment for me, and it’s shown me how much I have grown, not just as a researcher, but as a person in general. This validation of my efforts is both motivating and humbling.”

The Society for Science & the Public is a nonprofit founded in 1921 that is dedicated to expanding scientific literacy and research, and effective science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — education. Alumni of the contest have made many contributions to science and hold more than 100 of the world’s most distinguished science and math honors, including the Nobel Prize and the National Medal of Science.

Schools Superintendent Dr. Melissa Burak called Bahri a “bright star in Lynbrook.” “Sara’s recognition as a Regeneron scholar is truly well-deserved,” she said, “and a testament to her commitment and dedication to this standard of excellence.”

Bahri is one of 36 Long Island high school students to be recognized, and earned $2,000 for herself and her school. This is the second straight year that an LHS student earned the Regeneron scholar distinction as a member of the school’s Science Research Program, which was created by teacher David Shanker in 1999.

This year, scholars were selected from 1,993 applications submitted by 659 high schools in 49 states. To earn the honor, students had to demonstrate exceptional research skills, a commitment to academics, innovative thinking and promise as a scientist. Bahri was chosen for her science research project, “Altered Bilayer Elasticity as a Novel Mechanism for Aminoglycoside Antibiotics’ Toxicity.”

Aminoglycosides, she explained, are effective antibiotics, but are known to produce toxic side effects in the ears and kidneys. The elasticity of a cell membrane can be affected by these antibiotics, altering its ability to bend and compress. A membrane’s toxicity level can be determined by studying its elasticity. Bahri developed a novel approach to quantifying toxicity by constructing an artificial cell membrane, exposing it to aminoglycosides and measuring changes in its elasticity.

Bahri has worked in the Science Research Program, under the guidance of Shanker and teacher Charles Vessalico, for four years. Shanker said he was proud to see her become the program’s 10th Regeneron scholar in the past 20 years.

“For me, there’s a personal satisfaction in knowing that something that I developed many years ago is still successful and is still producing scientists,” he said of the program, “and I’m especially proud of the fact that we have so many women who are participating in the program.”

Of the 10 Regeneron scholars that Lynbrook has produced in the last 20 years, eight have been women. Bahri’s selection also marks the first time since 2008 and 2009 that the school has boasted scholars in back-to-back years. Kaylie Hausknecht and Juliana Condoleo were selected in 2019.

Shanker described Bahri as a “very special” person who thrives on her ability to multitask. He also praised her dedication in traveling to and from Weill Cornell Medical College every day over the summer. While there, she worked alongside Olaf Andersen, the lab’s principal investigator, and a host of graduate students from early June to late August.

Shanker said he asks students to keep a diary during their experiments, and Bahri was diligent about keeping her daily log, which he said was often humorous. “She kept a true diary,” he said. “She has a good sense of humor, and it was enjoyable to read her diary about her trials and tribulations. She would have a lot of downtime while waiting, and she would go off on funny tangents about what was going on in the lab and her personal experiences.” He added that she spoke about mustering enough courage to speak with scientists.

While at Weill Cornell, Bahri also had the opportunity to attend lab meetings, where she was invited to take part in conversations with seasoned scientists who had advanced degrees.

LHS Principal Joseph Rainis said he was meeting with a couple of Bahri’s friends when she came in to tell them she had been named a scholar. “Honestly, it was great to see the naturalness of their obvious friendship and to share in their happiness for Sara,” Rainis said. “This recognition could not have happened to a more deserving student.”

Bahri said she spent untold hours reviewing papers as she continued her project. Along the way, she said, she gained familiarity with research that others have conducted over the past 50 years. But what stood out most for her over the summer, she said, was learning about the power of collaboration.

Bahri is now in the running to be named one of 40 finalists in the competition. If selected, she will receive an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C., March 5-11, when she would compete for a top prize of $250,000. More than $1.8 million in prizes will be handed out.

“I feel so grateful to be a part of Lynbrook’s encouraging community and, of course, a member of this growing science research program,” she said. “It’s amazing to see how far we’ve all come.”