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Local teen is international science competition finalist

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Tyler Bissoondial, a rising junior at John F. Kennedy High School in Bellmore, is a finalist in an international science competition that challenges students to find practical solutions to some of the world’s most vexing environmental problems.

It is the 2021 Spellman Clean Tech Competition, hosted by the Center for Science, Teaching and Learning, based in Rockville Centre. This year’s challenge was “Preserving Planet Earth.” Hundreds of competitors were winnowed down to 60 semifinalists, 20 of whom entered the final stage of the competition. Finalists will compete for a share of a $60,000 prize.

While many of the competitors are members of teams from around the world, some go solo — about a quarter, estimated Dr. Ray Ann Havasy, CSTL executive director — including Bissoondial, 15, who completed his project on his own. In total, it spanned more than three years of hands-on research.

In his backyard, Bissoondial planted dozens of radishes to find ones that could grow in high-salt conditions. The research mimicked what may happen to the environment both near and far — by 2050, it is estimated that more than 50 percent of arable land will be salinized, a condition unsustainable for most plants. The damage is exacerbated by climate change and superstorms, such as Hurricane Sandy, and even during the normal upkeep of roads, when salt is used to counter snow.

“Land that we have allocated for crop development is going to be unable to be used, because it’ll have salt pollution in it,” Bissoondial said. “The problem is only going to get worse.”

His project, titled “Development of salt-tolerant radish for increase crop production or phytoremediation in regions of high salinity,” started in a petri dish. Bissoondial screened thousands of mutagenized seeds to find three that would grow in high-salt conditions. Those that did were bred through multiple generations to yield a radish plant that is more durable than its counterparts.

Checking on the seedlings became a daily endeavor for Bissoondial, who watched the plants grow in a controlled environment over the three years. When he started, less than 1 percent of the radishes grew in high-salt conditions. By the end, that number increased to 17 percent surviving, and that number will likely increase through more generations of the plant, Bissoondial estimated.

“That’s a major finding, because in this new generation a much larger percentage were able to grow,” Bissoondial said. “It’s still looking promising — I have a lot of seedlings that will hopefully be able to make it to maturity.”

While the radish is not as widely grown as other crops, Bissoondial chose to focus on it because of its availability as a food source in developing countries, which rely on it. In developing nations, poor irrigation systems can also cause high salinity in crops, according to Bissoondial.

Bissoondial said he hopes, however, that his findings can be applied to other crops. He plans to continue his research and potentially map the radish’s mutation, which will help identify the gene that causes a high-salt survival rate and to replicate it in other plants. It is a long process, however, Bissoondial said, that requires a high-tech lab.

Bissoondial will make a final presentation in the competition Aug. 5, after which the winners will be named. His father, Terrence, a research teacher who acted as a team leader only to submit the project (someone over 18 was needed), said he was proud to see his son’s independent work find a practical solution to a global problem.

“He learned that at a very early age — find something that people can relate to and that is very practical,” Terrence said.

Finding a practical solution also extends to Bissoondial’s other research project, which he is tackling as part of the Advanced Science Research class at Kennedy. Many ASR students are chosen as semifinalists and finalists for the annual Regeneron Science Talent Search competition.

Bissoondial is researching liver disease, specifically non-alcoholic steatohepatitis, or NASH. When diagnosing liver diseases, a biopsy of the liver is taken. Bissoondial’s research is assessing whether microRNA molecules found in the liver can be used for diagnostic testing, which could circumvent the need for an intrusive biopsy.

Bissoondial is now preparing to make his final presentation for the CSTL competition, which will be made the same day as international competitors, including students from the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Spain and elsewhere.

“At CSTL, we have a simple mission: help people learn more about science,” Havasy said. “We want to encourage people to want to know more.”

The need for science, technology, engineering and math professionals is “critical,” Havasy added, as the number of job openings outpaces the number of prospective job candidates, she said.

“I wasn’t trying to do anything super-complicated using a lot of technology,” Bissoondial said. “All I wanted was to find a plant that would be able to help people. You can do it using a lot of technology or a little bit, as long as the job gets done.”