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Trio of Five Towns students are Regeneron semifinalists

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Battling an autoimmune disease, not being able to use the school laboratory and worrying about contacting enough people to complete a survey were the individual obstacles that a trio of Five Towns students faced in completing the projects that led them to be named semifinalists in the prestigious 2021 Regeneron Science Talent Search.

Hewlett High School seniors Alex Breslav and Alicia Hsu, and Priva Halpert, a senior at Stella K. Abraham High School for Girls in Hewlett Bay Park, are among the 300 semifinalists in the country’s oldest and most prestigious science and math competition for high school seniors. The students and their schools will be awarded $2,000 each.

The semifinalists were selected from 1,760 applications from 611 high schools across 45 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and 10 countries. They were chosen based on their exceptional research skills, their commitment to academics, their innovative thinking and their promise as scientists. They study at 198 American and international high schools in 37 states, Puerto Rico, Chinese Taipei and Singapore.

On Jan. 21, the field will be whittled to 40 finalists, who will compete March 10-17 for more than $1.8 million in awards from Regeneron.

“I was extremely delighted at the outcome of Regeneron STS, I was trying hard not to focus on the results of a science competition,” Dr. Terrence Bissoondial, the research science teacher at Hewlett High, who mentored Breslav, wrote in an email. “Other things seem more important.” He was referring to a district middle school teacher, Anthony Cardinale, who recently died of complications of Covid-19. “Yet the success of these students brought me much needed joy,” Bissoondial added. “High achievements continue to happen in our school.”

Breslav, who is immunocompromised, completed the research for his project, titled “Evaluating the Specificity of Novel Monoclonal Antibodies for Pancreatic Ductal Adenocarcinoma,” before the coronavirus pandemic began, but was unable to leave his home because of his medical condition. Through his project, he found an effective way to detect pancreatic cancer tumors, and possibly other types of cancers.

Breslav conducted his research at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s Jason Lewis Lab in the summer of 2019. Bissoondial helped him develop the project for Regeneron and other science competitions.

Saying he has a “passion for research and finding the truths in the universe,” Breslav was animated when asked about his work. “In the lab, there’s a saying, ‘That’s science,’ when someone gets an unexpected result or an experiment fails,” he said. “Everyone in the lab is really competitive and wants to have the best project, the best research, but it’s really collaborative and supportive.”

The pandemic locked Halpert out of the Stella K. Abraham High lab for nearly five months she said, but with the help of her chemistry teacher, Dr. Chana Glatt, and mentor Dr. Mindy Levine, she persevered. Her project is titled “Harnessing the Colorimetric Changes due to the Antenna Effect for Detection of Aliphatic Alcohols in 2-HP-BETA-Cyclodextrin Solutions,” and in it Halpert detected harmful alcohols, especially for home brewers, in the interest of preventing alcohol poisoning.

“My [paternal] grandfather, Jay Halpert, was very into this,” Halpert explained. “He was an immigrant who came to America and studied electrical engineering. He helped me find something that I could be proud to do.”

The pandemic struck just as Hsu was planning to start her a survey for her social science research on “The Challenging Nature of Maternal Empathy: An Investigation of Maternal Empathy and Its Relationship to Self-Esteem.”

“Because of the pandemic, I couldn’t meet with people and had to do the survey online,” Hsu said. “I was worried I wouldn’t get enough people. I got 101 — it was enough for the research.”

In studying three types of empathy, Hsu found that when mothers understand their children and have confidence in saying no to them, they are much more likely to foster positive development and higher levels of self-esteem in their kids.

Hsu has conducted social science research for the past two years at Hewlett High under the direction of social studies teacher Dr. Patricia Nardi, who was impressed with her mentee’s ability to overcome the obstacles that came her way. “I was learning as Alicia was doing this research, and I learned a lot,” Nardi said. “She met everyday challenges, persevered, was diligent and produced a wonderful paper.”

As the students await the announcement of the Regeneron finalists, they are preparing for their lives after high school. Breslav is headed to Dartmouth University, but is yet to choose a major. Hsu is awaiting admission to Columbia University, and is planning to be an English major. Halpert said that she has applied to both state and private colleges, with an eye to majoring in chemistry and following a pre-med track.