For the first time in John F. Kennedy High School history, there are two finalists in the Regeneron Science Talent Search, Andrew Brinton and Katherine St George. On the day of the announcement, amid a flurry of congratulatory remarks and questions, the two were beaming with excitement.
“I can’t even verbalize” the feeling, said St George, 17, of Merrick.
After he received the call informing him of his status, “I was shaking the entire time,” Brinton, 17, of Merrick, said, adding that it was like being told, “We fit the bill to change the world.”
Kennedy is 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, which wins them an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C., March 5-11.
There, Brinton and St George will compete for more than $1.8 million in awards, with a top prize of $250,000, provided by the competition’s sponsor, Regeneron, a pharmaceutical company. Each finalist will receive a minimum prize of $25,000, and semifinalists received $2,000 each.
The Society for Science & the Public runs the Science Talent Search. Brinton and St. George are the fifth and sixth STS finalists to come out of Kennedy. Previous finalists included Michael Wagner in 2002, Adam Solomon in 2006, Samuel Epstein in 2015 and Rachel Mashal in 2016.
All finalists worked under the supervision of Barbi Frank in Kennedy’s Advanced Science Research class. The students, who numbered a dozen in this year’s 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.
“Every student who finishes a project has impressive work to leave behind,” Frank said.
She described the event in Washington as “the Academy Awards of science” for high school students. Finalists will have the chance to meet and share their research with leaders in various scientific fields, including Nobel laureates.
A medical alternative
For her project, titled “The Ketogenic Diet Ameliorates the Effects of Caffeine in Seizure Susceptible Drosophilia Melanogaster,” St George examined the relationship between epilepsy, the keto diet and caffeine consumption, which typically heightens convulsive symptoms. Using female fruit flies, she concluded that consuming more fat and fewer carbohydrates counteracts the negative effects of caffeine. She said “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.
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.
At Kennedy, St George, the 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.
Restoring L.I.’s wetlands
For Brinton’s project, titled “Marsh Restoration: Ribbed Mussels (Geukensia demissa) as a Revival Mechanism to Rebuild the Coastal Salt Marshes of Long Island, New York,” he sought “an environmentally friendly way of fighting climate change.” Much of his research was conducted in Freeport’s wetlands, examining the “symbiotic relationship” between ribbed mussels and the marshes, which depend on the mussels’ feces to grow.
Brinton told the Herald earlier this month that seeding the wetlands with ribbed mussels could help revive Long Island’s salt marshes, which would give residents added protection against future mega-storms like Hurricane Sandy — in which Brinton saw “the world fall apart” on his Merrick peninsula. Brinton found that the marshes are eroding at a rapid rate, but the introduction of more mussels could help restore them.
“All the times I stressed, or even failed certain things, I want to go back and give myself a pat on the back,” Brinton said. Whether it was waking up at 5 a.m. to get a jump-start on research or getting stuck knee-deep in a muddy marsh, “it was all worth it.”
Brinton devoted some 650 hours to his project, and conducted his research under the guidance of Hofstra University professor Dr. Emma Farmer, and also worked with the Long Island Regional Planning Council and the Long Island Nitrogen Action Plan. He has been accepted by Fordham University and the Hofstra University Honors College, and is awaiting responses from three other universities. In college, he plans to study environmental science and music.
Brinton has been an All-County tenor saxophonist for 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.
JFK's science research 'family'
Past Kennedy finalists lent a hand this year. St George said Epstein looked over her research paper, and Mashal was one of her main references for her project. Other ASR alumni offered messages of encouragement, including 2019 semifinalist Jonathan Mashal (Rachel’s younger brother), who wished them “good luck.”
“It’s not like a normal math or physics class,” Brinton said. ASR “is a huge family.”
Although becoming finalists is a major honor, the pair said they remain modest. “I’d even be happy if I was a semifinalist, because I know my work came from my heart,” Brinton said.
“The focus is on us, but every [ASR student’s] research was mind-blowing,” St George said.