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Sacred Heart teen beats college grads in research contest

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A Hempstead teenager has turned an aspect of life during the COVID-19 pandemic into a winning investigative science project.

Kaylin Spinelli, of St. Pauls Place, is a junior at Sacred Heart Academy. She created the project as a participant in Sacred Heart’s distinctive research program.

The program, which students enter through a placement test, was developed by Dr. Beth Feinman, chair of the Sacred Heart Science Department.

Feinman and Dr. Stephen Sullivan, the program’s research director, mentor their students through college-level studies in scientific investigation and writing. They also network with schools like New York University to give their students study time in professional laboratories.

Unfortunately, the pandemic shut down the labs, so, late in her sophomore year, Spinelli got an early start on the program’s most challenging component: a 20-page research paper.

Spinelli focused on a personally relevant topic: anxiety and poor sleep quality during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially among frontline workers and their families.

“My dad is a frontline worker,” said Spinelli. “He had to treat COVID patients and actually moved out of my house for ten weeks.”

Informed by that painful experience, Spinelli designed an electronic survey of 120 Sacred Heart students and 55 parents. She conducted the survey during fall 2020. Surprisingly, she discovered that “people’s anxiety actually started to heighten while things were opening up as opposed to when they were locked in their homes, because . . . there was more risk of exposure.”

Scientific surveys like Spinelli’s can help officials to prepare treatments for people affected by a disaster like the pandemic.

Her prestigious contest victory occurred when she formatted her survey results into a research poster, which she submitted to the Association for Psychological Sciences. A panel of judges evaluated her poster for presentation at the APS virtual convention in late May.

“[The posters] are read blind,” said Dr. Sullivan, “so when [the judges] read them, they do not know [some submissions are from] high school students.”

Competing against college, graduate, and post-doctoral entries, Spinelli’s poster won one of the coveted spots. She herself will do the virtual presentation.

Spinelli is still finishing the full-length paper based on the survey results. Her paper is titled, “Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Sleep Quality During the Covid-19 Outbreak in Adolescents and Parents: A Web-Based Cross-Sectional Survey.”

Once she completes the paper, she will submit it to research journals and other science contests.

Spinelli’s interests are not limited to research. According to Sister Jean Amore, principal of Sacred Heart Academy, “Kaylin is a focused, reflective, motivated young woman,” involved in Sacred Heart’s Women in Healthcare and Medicine Club, as well as other activities.

The research program is furthering Spinelli’s personal goal of becoming a nurse. “I definitely did not expect the amount of work that it would require,” she said, but “I loved the class. I stuck with it, and I think the work is 100% worth it.”