Just a few weeks after being named a semifinalist in the Regeneron Science Talent Search for his work studying the effects of an avian virus on cancer cells, Elmont Memorial High School senior Christopher Alexander found out that he is also a candidate for the Presidential Scholars program.
“I am extremely humbled,” Alexander said, calling the experience surreal.
The United States Presidential Scholars program was established under executive order by former President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 “to recognize and honor some of our nation’s most distinguished graduating high school seniors,” according to the United States Department of Education website. In 1974, the program was expanded to recognize students who have excelled in the visual, creative and performing arts, and in 2015, the program was once again expanded to recognize students who “demonstrate ability and accomplishment in career and technical education,” which is what local legislators and the New York State Interim Commissioner of Education Betty A. Rosa nominated Alexander for.
“These incredible students have shown determination and strength of character in their many successes and their accomplishments are testimonials to their tremendous efforts,” Rosa said in a statement. “I know our legislators who recommended these stellar students are as proud of them as I am and join me in wishing each of them the best of luck in their bright futures.”
Alexander had wanted to study potential cancer treatments since he first joined Elmont Memorial High School’s science research program as a freshman, he previously told the Herald, and in June 2019, he began studying the effects of avian paramyxovirus serotype 4 on cancer cells.
The virus is able to eliminate cancer cells from a body while ignoring healthy cells by making the body’s immune system attack the tumors. It is in the same family as the Newcastle Disease virus, which researchers have previously studied as a potential cancer treatment, but Alexander’s research showed the avian paramyxovirus worked better than the Newcastle Disease in eliminating cancer cells.
“It turned out very well with the amount of time I had,” Alexander said of his project.
He completed it in September 2020, after making frequent trips to the laboratory at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan — even during the coronavirus pandemic — to study the effects of the avian virus on cancer cells. He spent his time monitoring how well the cancer cells were eliminated by the virus and examining what response the cells had to the viru, all while taking precautions handling the cancer cells and the virus.
In November, Alexander submitted his results to the Regeneron Science Talent Search, along with a research paper, essays and test scores, and on Jan. 7, he was named a semifinalist in one of the oldest and most prestigious pre-college science competitions in the country.
The award comes with a $2,000 award for Alexander, as well as $2,00 for Elmont Memorial High School. If he becomes one of the more than 160 students who are named Presidential Scholars this year, Alexander will also be offered an all-expense paid trip to Washington, D.C. in June, and are presented with a U.S. Presidential Scholars medallion at a ceremony sponsored by the White House, in commemoration of their achievements.
During the visit, which may be postponed this year due to the pandemic, the students meet with national and international leaders; attend recitals, receptions and ceremonies held in their honor; visit museums and monuments; and share ideas with similarly-motivated and accomplished peers.
But, Alexander said, “Hard work is extremely important, even if it isn’t recognized,” noting that his failures over the years have led to his eventual success.
“It doesn’t matter how much you fail,” he said, “it matters how you act in the face of failure.”