John F. Kennedy High School’s most recent crop of Regeneron Science Talent Search semifinalists was announced on Jan. 7 by the Society for Science. Seniors Callie Burns, Tara Fusillo, Danielle Kacaj, Jordyn Krinsky and Julia Levine were among the top 300 scholars in the 2021 competition.
Regeneron STS is one of the oldest and most prestigious pre-college science competitions in the country, providing students with a national stage on which to present original research. The students were selected from more than 1,700 entrants worldwide, and each earned a $2,000 award; Kennedy will receive $10,000 for school programs.
“When I first saw my name, I was in shock,” said Fusillo, 17, of Merrick. “I was so happy I couldn’t move.”
The semifinalists worked under the supervision of Barbi Frank in Kennedy’s Advanced Science Research class. Her students, who numbered a dozen in this year’s class, start their research as freshmen, and devote thousands of hours of work to their projects, which often have practical, potentially world-changing implications.
Frank said this was the second time the semifinalists from JFK were all girls. The first time it happened was 2004 — the same year most of the current semifinalists were born.
“I’m so excited for the representation,” said Burns, 17, of Merrick. “I think it’s awesome that we all had this opportunity to even perform this amazing research . . . It was kind of a bonding experience for all of us girls who worked so, so hard, and it all paid off.”
But the hard work didn’t come without its own set of challenges. When the state ordered schools to pivot to remote instruction last March during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, Kennedy was no exception. Frank established a buddy system between upper and underclassmen so the older students could advise their younger peers. Additionally, ASR alumni spoke to the students every week via Zoom to share their own experiences from the class and offer advice.
“Once the pandemic hit, the 12 seniors rose to the occasion, and that commitment was so impressive and inspirational,” Frank said. “They were the only kids allowed to stay after school when school was closed . . . and it was their passion that drove this.”
Many of the students also set up home laboratories. Krinsky, whose project studied the collective effects of diet and caffeine on Parkinson’s disease in fruit flies, said she still has a CO2 tank attached to her dining room table in Bellmore. It was used to put her subjects under anesthesia.
Because of the pandemic, Kacaj’s clinical trial at Northwell Health’s Manhattan Eye, Ear & Throat Hospital was put on pause. “I had to perform all of my research from home,” she said. Her project studied if pattern electroretinogram (an ophthalmologic test) could detect retinal ganglion cell dysfunction in early-stage glaucoma patients.
Each of the students has a personal tie to her chosen research topic (see box).
Levine studied dietary factors and their potential influence on celiac symptoms in fruit flies. She, her mother and her sister all have the autoimmune disease. Her project is the first to examine the roles of glucose and fructose on such symptoms, and the first to use a fruit fly celiac model to investigate alternate treatment options for the disease, according to her summary.
Krinsky first became interested in neurodegenerative diseases after her grandmother was diagnosed with lung cancer, which spread metastatically to her brain and prevented her from performing innate tasks. Her research found that caffeine, the ketogenic diet and dietary restriction independently alleviated symptoms associated with Parkinson’s disease.
Fusillo’s project was inspired by the pandemic’s effects on socioeconomically vulnerable populations. Using readily available mortality rates, she studied how Covid-19 has disproportionately affected these hard-hit communities and shared her findings with pharmaceutical companies so they may allocate proper testing and treatment resources.
Burns’s experience as a Nassau County Youth Court advocate prompted her to investigate suspension and expulsion rates in high schools throughout Long Island. Many of the children she worked with came from the same few districts, she explained, and her research found that districts with “incorporated policing unequally distribute discipline to minority students,” according to her summary.
Kacaj’s interest in studying glaucoma, the world’s second-leading cause of irreversible blindness, came from her own experience with poor eyesight. She explained in her summary that since early-stage glaucoma patients present normal visual field tests, one may not know they have the disease until it is too late to properly treat it. She observed this first-hand while shadowing an ophthalmologist during freshman year, she said.
“At Kennedy, we talk a lot about the importance of resiliency and adaptability,” said Principal Gerard Owenburg. “I can’t think of any other group of individuals that have demonstrated these traits better than our class of 2021 Regeneron Scholars. The fact that these students were even able to complete and submit their research was one of the most emotional moments of this school year. I could not be prouder.”
Forty of the 300 scholars will be named finalists on Jan. 21. From March 10-17, the finalists will compete for more than $1.8 million in awards provided by Regeneron.
Kennedy’s scholars expressed admiration for the work done by their fellow classmates. On the day semifinalists were announced, all 12 seniors raised the Cougar Nation victory flag, which was installed in the courtyard last month.
“By the time we become seniors in the program, we are all best friends,” Levine said. “There’s no better feeling than being able to enter in the Regeneron STS competition together.”