Competition promotes innovations in research

Dylan Mori Nov 23, 2009

Last weekend, Carnegie Mellon hosted the Siemens Competition, a research competition that brings together brilliant high school students from across the country.

Funded by the Siemens Foundation and overseen by the College Board, the Siemens Competition was created in 1997 to promote innovations in the fields of math, science, technology, and engineering.
Students from six regions in the United States have the opportunity to work individually or with a group (usually an accredited university) on a project of their choosing.

Carnegie Mellon was responsible for hosting the Section Four regional finalists this weekend.
On Friday, the 25 winning students showcased their presentations in Rangos Hall for family, friends, judges, professors, students, and everyday citizens to view. The teams stood by their posters outlining their methods and conclusions in solving various problems.

Noted speakers at the event included Eric Grotzinger, Mellon College of Science’s associate dean for undergraduate affairs; Jim Whaley, the Siemens Foundation’s president; and Chuck Gordon, CEO and president of Siemens Corporation. They praised the students for the contributions to research.
“The need for innovation has never been greater,” Gordon said. The next step in these students’ journey is the national competition in New York City on Dec. 7.

The research groups involved took up a wide variety of topics:

1: Anirudh Nandan, Michelle Leonetti, Salonee Shah

This group worked on reducing the formation of scars after an injury. Although scar tissue aids in the healing of wounds, it is of an inferior quality compared to the normal tissue that is found in the body.

The group tested different materials that could be used to support healthy tissue formation in the body and would potentially reduce scar tissue formation. They tested not only different gels (with compositions similar to human skin), but also a fiber created by electrospinning. This is a technique that allows the fiber to be very fine and thin, making it resemble the fibers in the extracellular matrix. The extracellular matrix is the substance in which all cells in a tissue are suspended. Applying the treatment at different angles can affect the placement of scar tissue and induce a more rapid recovery.

2: David Park, Erica Chung

This group had two major goals: to characterize five different antibodies that may be able to prevent hepatitis C and to develop a model that will test for the agents that cause hepatitis C.
They were primarily concerned with two envelope proteins — E1 and E2 — which were specifically designed to target liver cells.

3: Ruoyi Jiang

Jiang tested the drug Paclitaxel (or Taxol) on microtubules in cells. Microtubules are one of the proteins that help maintain the skeletal structure of the cells. More importantly, microtubules are required during cell division as they help pull chromosomes to different ends of the cell for segregation.

Taxol interferes with the functioning of microtubules, causing them to resist mitosis and causing the cell to undergo apoptosis (self-induced death). He used newly developed computer programs to simulate the action of the drugs on the microtubules, and this technology could be applied to any biological mechanism, allowing the discovery of the most effective drugs quickly.

4: Shaunak Bakshi, Peter Massey

This group attempted to find a treatment for Alzheimer’s in fruit flies. A protective antioxidant called alpha-lipoic acid has been shown to improve memory performance, and they observed its effect on Alzheimer-causing plaque deposits in the brain.

They also used a method of olfactory associative learning — learning related to the sense of smell — in which they put the flies through Pavlovian shock avoidance techniques by associating an electric shock with a specific smell.

5: Cynthia Chen

Chen looked for a treatment for Fragile X syndrome, a mental disability. The syndrome is caused by the loss of the protein FMRP, which results in defective synapses, which are the connections between neurons.

Chen researched the DNA mutation that prevents FMRP synthesis, in addition to a molecule that helps bind RNA and induce protein production. Chen was hopeful about the prospects of the project in the future. “[The project] may lead to the design of effective therapy that can replace the activity and proper function of FMRP.”

6: Jason Shieh

Shieh studied acute lymphoblastoma leukemia (ALL), which is the proliferation of lymphoid tissue.
Lymphoid tissue contains a number of white blood cells and is mainly concerned with protecting the body from infections.

Shieh tested several factors of the disease, including the ALL cells’ interactions with other cells, the development of an in vitro cell culture system, and the application of this culture system to other leukemia specimens.

7: Cathy Zhou, Israt Ahmed, Stephanie Chen

This group used ESR spectroscopy to find the uranium concentration in an Equus tooth found in Russia.

This type of analysis involves exciting electrons and analyzing the resultant magnetic field.
This method allowed the group to determine the age of the tooth.

8: Jiayi Lin, Ellis Darby

This group used optical tweezers, which use a laser beam to combine opposing forces in order to trap very small particles.

The group studied “Brownian vortexes,” a new type of heat engine that employs a third force to cause particles to move in a circle.

With this, scientists can move molecular particles without actually touching them or puncturing the membrane in which they are located.

9: Joshua Pfeffer

Pfeffer researched a mathematical model called the Super Kähler-Ricci Flow, a better version of the Ricci flow. The Ricci flow defines the curvature of several geometric surfaces that look flat up close but appear curved from far away (much like how we perceive the Earth to be flat).
The Ricci flow only works in lower-dimensional space (3-D or 4-D), so Pfeffer invented a mathematical tool that would define such surfaces in higher-dimensional space.

10: Kevin Zhao

Zhao used a molecular simulation to observe the harmful effects of oxidized DNA — which is modified DNA that has been acted upon by molecules that contain oxygen — and its removal by the MutM protein.

“Our DNA is under attack by reactive oxygen species,” he explained. He noted an energy barrier between DNA with an oxygen group attached and DNA without it — it was more energetically favorable for the MutM protein to remove the DNA with the oxygen group.