John F. Kennedy High School, in Bellmore, regularly boasts a number of semifinalists in the Regeneron Science Talent Search, and this year is no exception. Three seniors were announced as Regeneron scholars on Jan. 8, and the students’ months-long projects led to practical, potentially world-changing conclusions.
Scholars Andrew Brinton, Kenar Gelman and Katherine St. George, seniors in Barbi Frank’s Advanced Science Research class, are among the top 300 young scientists in the United States. Selected from nearly 2,000 entrants, each earned a $2,000 award, and Kennedy will receive a total of $6,000 for school programs. Regeneron STS is among the oldest and most prestigious pre-college science competitions in the country.
The scholars spoke with the Herald Life about their research and the inspiration for it.
Naturally healing the South Shore
Brinton, 17, of Merrick, still remembers how hard Hurricane Sandy hit his peninsula in 2012, inundating his home with more than three feet of water. The climate crisis, a potential cause of the storm, is among the biggest problems that we face today, he said.
In his work, Brinton tried to find “an environmentally friendly way of fighting climate change.” Much of the research for his project, titled “Marsh Restoration: Ribbed Mussels (Geukensia demissa) as a Revival Mechanism to Rebuild the Coastal Salt Marshes of Long Island, New York,” was conducted while he was boots-deep in Freeport’s wetlands — accompanied, for safety’s sake, by his father, Herald Community Newspapers Executive Editor Scott Brinton — examining the “symbiotic relationship” between ribbed mussels and the marshes, which depend on the mussels’ feces to grow.
Seeding the wetlands with ribbed mussels, Brinton said, could help revive Long Island’s salt marshes, which would give residents added protection against future mega-storms like Sandy. The marshes are eroding at a rapid rate, he found, but the introduction of more mussels could help restore them.
“Marshes are like a sponge,” Brinton explained, and a healthier marsh system could have significantly reduced the level of Sandy flooding, particularly in Freeport. Brinton fears, however, that the wetlands could vanish in his lifetime if no action is taken, as the effects of the climate crisis, in particular sea-level rise, worsen each year.
Marshes are not only a practical counter to storm flooding, but also are a cost-effective way to protect Long Island’s mainland. Marsh-revival projects using Brinton’s research could serve as an alternative to “synthetic storm surge barriers,” which harm the environment by reducing biodiversity, he said.
Brinton conducted his research under the guidance of Hofstra University professor Dr. Emma Farmer, and he worked with the Long Island Regional Planning Council and the Long Island Nitrogen Action Plan as well. Climate change “transcends politics,” he said. “With the things the world is facing, we can’t keep going the way we’re going.”
Brinton, who devoted some 650 hours to his project, has been accepted by Fordham University and the Hofstra University Honors College, and is now awaiting three other responses from universities. In college, he plans to study environmental science and music. He has been an All-County tenor saxophonist the past three years, and was selected as an All-State alternate by the New York State School Music Association this year. He is also co-president of Kennedy’s mock trial team and a member of the science club.
Arthritis research for people of all ages
The title of Gelman’s project — “Chondrocyte Adenosine A2A Receptor Signaling Leads to Cellular Homeostasis through Activation of Protein Kinase A” — doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Her research, however, could lead to medicinal remedies for osteoarthritis. Joint inflammation, while usually associated with older adults, isn’t limited to them, she explained.
“I suffer from it, too,” said Gelman, 17, of Merrick, who partially tore an anterior cruciate ligament in her knee while playing soccer as a freshman. Her research, she said, could “help create drugs for people who also suffer — not a cure, but something that can help.”
For her project, Gelman investigated drug receptor pathways that connect to cartilage and are used in the medicinal treatment of osteoarthritis. She discovered a previously unknown “gap” in the pathway that could help scientists better understand the process of cartilage formation. “I found a missing piece of the puzzle,” Gelman said.
Her research could aid in the development of new drugs for osteoarthritis, though most people turn to physical therapy rather than medication, she said. She worked under the guidance of Dr. Bruce Cronstein at the NYU Langone Medical Center in Manhattan. In all, she put more than 300 hours in the lab.
Now recovered from her injury, Gelman plays soccer nearly every day, and is on the school’s basketball team. She plans to attend Bucknell University, where she will play Division I soccer.
Becoming a scholar was “one of the best feelings I ever had,” she said. “A lot of people don’t have the opportunity to be in such an amazing program with an amazing teacher.”
A diet to counteract epilepsy
Have you heard of the ketogenic diet, a recent trend for people trying to eat fewer carbohydrates and lose weight? According to St. George, it originated to counteract epileptic seizures.
St. George’s project, “The Ketogenic Diet Ameliorates the Effects of Caffeine in Seizure Susceptible Drosophilia Melanogaster,” examined the relationship between epilepsy, the keto diet and caffeine consumption, which typically heightens convulsive symptoms.
Using fruit flies as her test subjects, she concluded that consuming more fat and fewer carbohydrates counteracts the negative effects of caffeine. She offered that “keto is an effective, non-medicinal” treatment for epilepsy, and her project confirmed its anti-convulsive properties.
“Now there’s an alternative for people not wanting to use medicine,” but who still consume caffeine, Frank said.
St. George, 17, of Merrick, initially wanted to research influenza, she said, but that changed once she saw how nutrition can play a role in the treatment of epilepsy. “It really inspired me to investigate [a] previously uninvestigated interaction,” she said.
In total, she estimated that she spent more than 400 hours on her project. She studied under Dr. Theodore Brummel, a LIU biology professor.
At Kennedy, St. George, her class valedictorian, is president of the Gay-Straight Alliance and the head of Helping Our Planet Earth, an environmental club. She also teaches for Tutors for a Cure, through which she helped raise $3,200 for cancer research last year. She has also spearheaded several community-oriented projects, including one to spruce up Cammanns Pond Park in Merrick.
She will attend Columbia University in the fall, where she plans to major in math.
“I’m so impressed — the perseverance and passion is really unparalleled,” Frank said of her Advanced Research class, who have together conducted thousands of hours of research since freshman year. “It’s hard to imagine what they really do [in their research], but when you dig deep, it really is mind-blowing.”