Article Organized and Collated by Julie Geng, V Form & STEM Fellowship ’13-’14
On the Friday before spring break, eleven St. Mark’s students in the STEM Research Fellowship class participated in the annual Worcester Regional Science Fair held at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. All eight projects were able to go on to the Massachusetts State Science Fair in May at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Worcester Regional Science and Engineering Science Fair is where the students’ efforts are displayed and where students are judged to determine scientific merit. Students who demonstrate thoroughness in their studies and have used the scientific method properly are awarded prizes and are advanced to compete in state, national, and international fairs.
WRSEF is held annually at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. The WRSEF mission is to encourage the development of student inquiry-based science process skills by supporting the education community, by providing a forum where students can dialogue with professionals and by honoring science achievement. Approximately 40 projects from each division qualify to enter the state fair.
The 2013-2014 school year marks the second year of the STEM Research Fellowship program at St. Mark’s. This year’s STEM fellows explore topics in a variety of fields, including cognitive biology, agricultural engineering, civil engineering, and synthetic organic chemistry. As part of the 2020 Strategic Plan and its STEM Initiative, this application-based program aims to provide students an opportunity to conduct advanced independent scientific research through collaborative work, a focused interdisciplinary approach, and the application of research to real-world challenges. The application deadline for next year’s program has passed, and the new STEM Fellows will be selected and announced in mid-April. If you are interested in the STEM Fellowship program, please feel free to contact either Ms.Lindsey Lohwater or Mr. Ken Wells.
Ali Mills (VI Form, 2-year STEM Fellow):
“I liked that we got to observe other students work and get helpful feedback from the judges. Five of my judges were great but the last one was really confused by the project and couldn’t wrap her head around it. It just made me need to think about my project in a different way which probably benefitted me.
I realized the importance of presentation and preparation. In future endeavors/science fairs, I will create a presentation that can appeal to a wide variety of people and succinctly communicate the purpose of my project. It was interesting to see how other students compare to us and to learn more about their projects.”
Julie Geng (V Form):
“I was fascinated by the variety of projects at the fair, and I enjoyed conversing with other participants and sharing our research projects. One student I talked with, Gregory Konar, invented a reporter that detects cancer cell differentiation. He told me that he conducted his research at UMass-Amherst and that he had three publications already!
Some of my judges know organic chemistry very well, while others are experts in other STEM fields. In addition to many challenging questions, they provided me with many insights and inspirations for my research and career. One judge told me that chemists are in need of an analytical instrument that can ‘videotape’ the reaction to help them study the mechanism, and another judge encouraged me to apply for a patent after I publish my study. It was an exhausting but rewarding day, and I very much look forward to our science fair in May!”
Finnegan Schick (VI Form):
“The science fair was a fantastic opportunity to step outside the St. Mark’s bubble and see the work that science students from around the area are doing. It was both exciting and intimidating to see the caliber of some of the other projects.
The judging process was not as stressful as I expected. Having worked on the project for almost a year, I knew the subject well enough to speak passionately and intelligently about Willy’s and my research. Willy and I will definitely be making changes to our project before the State Fair in May. A new poster and some statistical analysis of our data are in order.”
Torie Shakespeare (V Form):
“I think seeing other students’ projects at the fair was enlightening and inspiring. It showed where I had come from with my science research in comparison to simpler projects as well as showing all the places I had to go.I liked how the judging process was interactive. Instead of the judges walking around and examining the projects themselves, we were able to discuss them with the judges step by step to ensure maximum understanding.Every judge I talked to encouraged me to highlight something more or a way in which I could improve their understanding. Their comments and critique was helpful and I look forward to implementing their suggestions to prepare for the fair at MIT.”
Ms. Lindsey Lohwater (STEM Fellowship Teacher):
Our Posters and Projects
Ali Mills ’14: The Effect of Chronic versus Acute Protein Deficiency on Cognitive Development in Fruit Flies
Malnutrition is the lack of the proper amount and quality of nutrients, calories, and proteins in order for the body to function properly, grow, and maintain itself. The term Malnutrition refers to both overnutrition, consuming more calories than the body requires and undernutrition, not consuming enough calories for the body to function. This study focuses on undernutrition and its cognitive implications. Worldwide over 925 million people, the majority of whom live in the developing world, suffer from undernutrition. Nutrition is especially important during early stages of life during which the brain develops. Malnutrition can occur chronically or acutely. Chronic malnutrition occurs over a long period of time, often since or before birth and can become cyclical over generations. Acute malnutrition is a sudden onset lack of nutrients often due to a change in social condition. This study focuses on the different cognitive effects of chronic and acute malnutrition. Learning is an organism’s ability to change their actions or behavior as a result of experience. It is closely linked with memory, which is an organism’s ability to retrieve and retain information. These processes and changes occur within the cells of the hippocampus in the brain of organisms. The study tested the ability of these protein deprived groups of model organisms to retrieve memories and respond to them. This simulated learning ability and helped to support a conclusion of whether protein deficiency can impair learning in humans.
The study used Drosophila melanogaster, or the fruit fly, as a model organism. The fruit fly is an ideal organism to use in this experiment because its cognitive development genes are similar to those of humans and they are able to distinguish between different scents. The fruit flies were tested on their ability to learn to avoid scents associated with negative stimuli. The goal of this study is to measure the ability of the different groups of flies to learn and develop memories. The learning ability of chronically protein deprived flies, acutely protein deprived flies and control fed flies were all compared. The investigation supported the hypothesis that chronic protein deficiency negatively affects the ability to learn and form memories more than acute protein deficiency. This could suggest significant implications for the educational advancement of poverty stricken societies and the role of healthcare for women in these societies.
Thomas (Hughie) Auchincloss ’14 and Elizabeth (Lizzy) MacDougall ’14: Starvation in Caenorhabditis elegans: The impact on RNA interference
RNA interference (RNAi) is a biological process for post-transcriptional gene silencing that works by destroying specifically identified mRNA molecules. In recent studies, RNAi has been determined to be an effective defense mechanism against viral pathogens in plants, insects and mammals. It is widely recognized that the lack of proper nutrients weakens the immune system making the host more susceptible to viral infection. Therefore, an organism’s ability to utilize RNAi as an antiviral mechanism may also be affected by nutrient deficiency. It is important to consider that if RNAi is negatively affected by nutrient deficiency then its use as an antiviral therapy could be stymied in individuals affected by malnutrition. This is most relevant in developing countries where the burden of disease and presence of malnutrition is more prominent. The purpose of this study is to research the effects of nutrient deficiency on the RNAi antiviral response using the model organism Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans), a type of nematode worm. It is hypothesized that nutrient deficiency diminish the capacity for RNAi antiviral response in C. elegans. To test this, three different strains of C. elegans will all be grown in three different environments. The strains of C. elegans used will be the wild-type N2 strain, the NL2099 strain, and the JU1580 strain. Each strain is used because they have different responses to inducing of the RNAi. The NL2099 strain is hypersensitive to RNAi, the JU1580 is not responsive to RNAi and the N2 strain is slightly sensitive to RNAi. Cultures of each strain of worm will be grown in each of the three environments. The environments will be, a culture grown with the empty vector plo4440, a culture grown with the dpy-11 gene, and a culture starved and grown with the dpy-11 gene. The cultures that are starved will have their food source removed early on in their life cycle, which will deprive the C. elegans of nutrients. Over the course of two days the nematodes will be observed for signs of the silencing of the dyp-11 gene. The major phenotype of the dyp-11 gene is short fat worms. The cultures that were deprived of nutrients and induced with the dyp-11 gene will be compared with the cultures in the two other environments to observe differences in expression of the dyp-11 gene. These observations will be analyzed for a relationship between starvation and RNAi antiviral response.
Joseph Cho ’14: Water Production Through Bio-mimcry of the Namib Desert Beetle
My research intends to biologically mimic Namib Desert beetles’ ways of transforming water vapor from the atmosphere to liquid potable water. Using accessible materials in Haiti such as lumber and metal, my design will be similar to the structure of the beetles’ backs to produce drinkable water.
Torie Shakespeare ’15: The Impact of Learning Staff Notation on Memory, Attention to Detail, and Problem Solving
Experimental psychology examines the basic processes of the brain. Biopsychology, a subset of experimental psychology, is the field of examining the relationship between the brain and certain actions and in what way those actions affect mood, emotion, and behavioral changes. The motivation of the study is to see how the process of learning a musical instrument through various time periods throughout childhood may affect basic cognitive functions relating to working memory, verbal memory, attention to detail, and problem solving. St. Mark’s partner school in Haiti, Saint Marguerite’s, does not have a music program. Results from this experiment can be used as incentive to establish musical education for the students there. It is hypothesized that students who have had formal musical training to a level that enables them to easily read and comprehend staff notation will perform at a greater level on a series of short cognitive tests than those who have not had musical training in reading and comprehending staff notation.
Students from the sophomore grade at St. Mark’s who fit the specific criteria will be chosen to participate in the experiment. The principal investigator will proctor all testing sessions with a supervising educator present. Participants will take a preliminary survey and then complete a testing packet. All resulted will be statistically analyzed to find a correlation between amount of musical education and basic cognitive functions.
Will Lyons ’14 and Finnegan Schick ’14: Erosion Control: Using Plant Hormones to Increase the Root Length of Vetiver Grass
The vetiver hedge system, used globally as an effective method of erosion control, prevents rainwater runoff on steep slopes while anchoring the topsoil. Vetiver (Chrysopogon zizanioides) has unusually long root systems which, unlike many plants, grow straight down in a column shape. The unique root structure of vetiver lends itself to erosion control when the plant is grown in rows along the contours of mountainside farms. Our research investigates the use of plant growth hormones (phytohormones) in increasing the length of vetiver roots. Two specific phytohormones, abscisic acid (ABA) and indole acetic acid (IAA), are often used to stimulate root, leaf and stem growth. By attempting to increase the length and density of vetiver roots by watering vetiver plants in solutions of water and phytohormones, our research aims to reveal how and if phytohormones could be integrated with the vetiver hedge system to better control topsoil erosion. Vetiver plants were watered and treated with varying amounts of both ABA and IAA stock solutions for one month. Control vetiver, without any hormone treatment, was also grown. Our data suggest that while IAA may inhibit both the root and shoot growth of vetiver, ABA may encourage root and shoot elongation.
Haley Jeon ’14: Effects of Cell Dissociation Methods on Proliferation and Pluripotency of induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPSCs)
The main purpose of the research was analyzing the impacts of four commonly used cell dissociation methods on iPSCs: collagenase, EDTA, scraping, and trypsin. Four groups of cells representing each method were passaged three times before they were evaluated. The effects of the four techniques were measured in two ways, quantitatively through cell counting and qualitatively through immunocytochemistry of pluripotency surface markers Tra-1-60 and SSEA4. The dissociation method that preserves both proliferation and pluripotency was to be recognized as the optimal option.
The hypothesis was that collagenase would result in the most cell number and most well-preserved pluripotency, but the results were different from the initial assumption. In terms of cell proliferation, EDTA was the most effective method, but in terms of cell pluripotency, every method was equally successful. This may have been because of the smooth and light dissociating effect of EDTA and its optimal temperature of room temperature, unlike the higher temperatures of the other methods.
Varun Shankar ’14 and Riona Reeves ’14: A Steam-based Water Pump
The purpose of this experiment was to design, build, and test a sustainable, cost-effective, green-energy water pump and irrigation system. This pump system would have to be capable of driving water 200 m nearly vertically, using the only power source readily available in rural Haiti, sunlight. No current pump is capable of fulfilling these requirements. Usually pumps are only capable of moving water a few feet vertically or they require electricity via photovoltaic power cells, which are expensive and are at a high-risk of being stolen. Therefore, neither of these would work in such a steep mountainous region, where theft is a growing issue.
Using concentrated solar power and steam, the proposed pump design would allow La Tournelle to use a sustenance farm drip irrigation system to increase crop production without damaging the environment, all with very little cost. This system may serve as a major stepping-stone in the production of more advanced, efficient, and reliable systems in the future.
Julie Geng ’15: Synthesis of R-Furalaxyl, an enantiopure fungicide
Stereoisomers are isomers that differ in spatial arrangement of atoms instead of the order of atomic connectivity. Different enantiomers can exhibit markedly different biological activities. Thus, stereochemistry is of great importance in chemical interactions.
The pesticidal activity of a chiral pesticide is generally exhibited by the single biologically active enantiomer while the other may have toxic effects. In an effort to alleviate the potential environmental and health hazards posed by racemic mixtures of chiral pesticides, I designed a synthesis of the active R-enantiomer of a chiral fungicide, furalaxyl, using enantiopure starting material. Furalaxyl is mostly used against downy mildews, late blight, damping off, and rots in many agricultural crops (Sulimma et al, 2013).
The synthesis of R-furalaxyl comprises two steps: a N-heterocyclic carbene (NHC) palladium-catalyzed Buchwald-Hartwig amination at room temperature followed by a nucleophilic acyl substitution.
My first attempt yielded primarily the starting material, aryl bromide. This result can be attributed to the properties of multi-functionalized amino esters. The challenge associated with the cross coupling reaction of amino esters is “the competitive coordination of the substrates with the counter anion of the catalyst, which might cause deactivitation of the catalyst” (Ma et al, 2013).
In order to modify the reaction scheme, I designed two more reactions utilizing sterically hindered, electron-rich ligands, monophosphines (MOP) and 2,2′-Bis(diphenylphosphino)-1,1′ -binaphthalene (BINAP).