Three seniors from South Side High School were selected by the Material Research Society to present the findings of their scientific research project to faculty from several of the nation’s top colleges at the organization’s fall meeting and exhibition in Boston on Nov. 30.
Over the summer, Sophia Bracco, Sergio Rosa and Dominic Rosiello worked with Stony Brook University researchers at the university’s Garcia Center for Polymers at Engineered Interfaces, studying a substance known as partially reduced graphene oxide.
“We were testing the catalytic effects of partially reduced graphene oxide, and the reaction between use and hydrogen peroxide,” Bracco explained. “Specifically, we wanted to look into thrombin and fibrinogen, which are blood clotting factors, to see if it would enhance the speed of clotting of those two proteins.”
Herbert Weiss, the science research coordinator at South Side High, said the students decided “on a lark” to submit their research paper, and were invited to present their research in Boston.
“Generally, only graduate students and Ph.D.s get picked to present their work,” Weiss said. “This means that all of the top schools are going to be looking at what they do.”
Due to the magnitude of their work and its practical applications, the South Side students’ project, entitled “The effects of partially reduced graphene oxide on the enzymatic activity of yeast,” was also selected by the Material Research Society to be published in an affiliated academic journal.
“It’s a really great achievement knowing that the work we did over the summer actually meant something,” Rosiello said.
Six more seniors in the South Side research program — Noah Feigenbaum, Francis Hassin, Bianca Oronato, Allison Paulino, Natalia Skrodski and Avery Testa — also entered their independent research projects in the 2024 Regeneron Science Talent Search, the nation’s oldest science and math competition. Each year, 400 Regeneron scholars are selected from nearly 2,000 entrants nationwide.
Skrodski worked with the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in Manhattan, researching genetic testing and the risk prediction of cancer.
“There are a bunch of mutations in our genome that add to our risk for getting a certain disease,” she said. “So (researchers) conducted studies in populations around the world to map out these mutations.”
But Skrodski found that about 75 percent of the data being used was European-centric.
“These scores are supposedly meant to be for everyone,” she said. “But based on how they’re being applied now, if you’re a person of non-European descent, you’re going to get a less accurate risk prediction, which could affect, for example, your prioritization in a hospital.”
Her study highlighted this disparity, by recalculating the risk scores based on continental ancestry. In order to do so, Skrodski taught herself how to use the computer program Python.
Weiss said that while Skrodski was working on her research over the summer, she completed a project in astrophysics, and was among the 7 percent of student applicants accepted into the summer science program at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Oronato said that she worked alongside graduate students in the geochemistry department at Stony Brook, evaluating the boron concentration uptake in different terrestrial plants. She determined that carrots, tomatoes and spinach absorb boron in different quantities.
“When a new boron supplement is added to the environment that the plants surrounding it are not used to having, they initially uptake as much as possible, thinking that it could be fleeting,” Oronato explained. “But as the supplement dissolves into the soil surrounding it … the plant starts to more steadily uptake boron based on its need rather than the concentration in the soil around it.”
Testa and Feigenbaum said that they both worked with Project Vesta on its Coastal Carbon Capture research involving olivine, a mineral that could prove helpful in removing harmful carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere.
Hassin worked with the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai to collect data on the cellular breakdown of the prostate. Although the work was new to him, he said it helped him gain better insight on fixing programming errors.
Paulino focused on a literary review, comparing Darwin’s “Theory of Relativity” to the concept of “intelligent design,” a pseudoscientific explanation for the existence of God.
“You don’t need to be in science research to do a science research project,” Weiss explained.
“I feel like through the research project, I was able to learn what I want to do in my life after high school,” Paulino said. “I was able to develop new skills that I didn’t have prior to this extended essay, and I think it helped me to decide that I want to be a scientist after college.”
Weiss said that science research helps students develop critical thinking skills, enhances their ability to work both independently and collaboratively and perhaps, most important of all, helps nurture a sense of accomplishment.
“It’s amazing when you think about it — when you’ve found something that only you knew, and you just found that out,” Weiss said. “Nobody else in the world knew that. You are the sole owner of that. Until you tell somebody, you’re it. And that's such a powerful thing to own.”
All nine South Side seniors credited Weiss with making so many opportunities available for them to work with universities and research labs, and to compete at such a high level.
Bracco said that when she started high school, she wanted to become a musician, but got more involved in the research program after taking chemistry as a sophomore.
“(Weiss) asked his chemistry class if anyone wanted to get involved with research, and that was something I was interested in,” she said. “I did and I loved it. And that really changed the entire course of my life.”
Thanks to her interest in science research, Bracco was one of only 300 students across the tristate region accepted into the prestigious Columbia University Science Honors Program, a rigorous 12-week course for high school underclassmen, and this year she was named a National Merit Scholar semifinalist, joining less than 1 percent of high school students nationwide with the highest scores on the PSAT exam.