Time for science buffs to shine

Centennial senior wins fourth place in international contest

May 17, 2000|By Tanika White and Jamie Smith Hopkins | Tanika White and Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

A Howard County senior is among five students from Maryland who won awards at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, organizers announced yesterday.

The contest, formerly known as the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, is the world's largest science competition for high school students.

Among students taking top honors were Centennial High School student Shankar Sridhara and Montgomery County senior Joshua Levy.

Sridhara, 17, has been working on his prize-winning project since last summer at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research -- donning a lab coat, gloves and goggles to study human cells that had been exposed to bubonic plague.

His work with the plague, titled "Differential Gene Expression Induced by Yersini pestis in Human Monocytes," is an effort to determine how the plague affects human DNA, Sridhara said. "So that way, way, way in the future, we can use it to diagnose plague," he said.

The research will be beneficial, the Centennial senior said, because many agents used in biological warfare produce symptoms similar to the plague, and doctors and scientists need better ways to diagnose illness caused by the plague.

Sridhara received a fourth-place award for his project, winning $500 from the Intel contest, $3,000 from the Air Force and $8,000 from the Navy.

The money will be used to help pay for Sridhara's studies at Boston University's seven-year medical program, which he will enter in the fall.

He isn't sure what kind of doctor he wants to be -- he just wants to help people, said Sridhara, who has lived in Howard County intermittently since about fourth grade.

"Money's not really that much of an interest," he said. "I really like the idea of helping people in general. I just have a real interest in medicine and the human body."

Sridhara is a competitive tennis player and loves music. He plays alto saxophone in Centennial's wind ensemble and jazz band, and clarinet in the school's symphony orchestra. His favorite music is be-bop and swing.

"I love playing be-bop," Sridhara said. "But it's kind of hard, the technical difficulty."

Not nearly as difficult, however, as comparing cell samples exposed to the bubonic plague to those in a control group and carefully examining both for changes in protein levels, Sridhara said.

Family of scientists

Born in India, Sridhara comes from a family of scientists. His father is an engineer, his mother a biostatistician.

Levy, an 18-year-old Gaithersburg resident who took a first-place award for his cancer research, traces his interest in the subject to sixth grade -- when he spent time with a doctor from Children's Hospital, chatting about cell structure.

Levy's prize-winning work -- "mtCLIC p53 and TNF-ALPHA Regulated Mitochondrial Chloride Channel Involved in Apoptosis" -- was part of a research project at the National Cancer Institute. He worked with Dr. Ester Fernandez, studying one of the body's natural defense mechanisms against damaged cells.

The protein p53 is a cancer fighter: "It essentially makes these damaged cells kill themselves before they become tumors," Levy said.

Fifty percent of cancer cases are linked to a malfunctioning p53, he said.

Levy started working for the institute three years ago. He volunteers during the school year and is a paid staff member during the summer.

A senior at Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg, he found the biggest challenge during the project was time -- how to manage it.

Busy schedule

Last year, while he delved into proteins and gene sequencing, he also played on his school's ice hockey and varsity lacrosse teams, participated in student government and clubs, and was staying up until 3 a.m. to finish his homework.

This year he cut back.

"I've really learned a lot about myself, that I want to do everything, and I have to control myself sometimes," Levy said.

The field that interests him -- the one he hopes to make his career -- is virology. He's seen "Outbreak," the Dustin Hoffman film about a killer germ, five times.

"I want to be Dustin Hoffman, one of the virus guys," Levy said with a chuckle.

The other Maryland winners are:

Third-place award: Yevgeny Brudno, 18, Montgomery Blair High School, Silver Spring, for "Effects of Oxytocin on Social and Maternal Attachment in Neonatal Prairie."

Fourth-place award: Elaine Pei-San Gee, 18, Frederick High School, Frederick, for "Dynamics of CD4 T Cells in HIV-Patients Under HAART Implications in Immune System Restoration."

Fourth-place award: Jia Wu, 17, Montgomery Blair High School, Silver Spring, for "Omni-Directional Aerodynamic Probe and its Associated Analysis Software for Non-Compressible Flow Fields."

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