Three recent graduates of Broadneck High School know all about "oligonucleotides." They have spent long nights learning about these DNA strands, which help health researchers identify mutations.
Now the student scientists are gearing up for a fall trip to Budapest, Hungary, to present their newly developed oligonucleotide-coding software at a worldwide science fair.
They exhibited their team project at the recent Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Cleveland. They came home with four awards, among them an invitation to participate in the European Union Contest for Young Scientists.
Two of their peers at South River High School, Erin Frey and Mark Cross, also attended the Ohio fair as individual competitors. All five were honored at an Anne Arundel County school board meeting last month.
The competition was "fun interspersed with science," said Andrew Ascione, 18, one of the three Broadneck graduates. He and his teammates Aaron Schulman, 17, and David Bennett, 17, missed school for one week to attend the fair. From December until the contest, the three Broadneck graduates spent about 20 hours a week on their project, Schulman said.
Their task came from the Public Health Research Institute in Newark, N.J., which often teams up with scientifically inclined high school students.
The institute was looking for coding software for "molecular beacons," which are, in Schulman's words, "difficult to explain."
The beacons, a type of oligonucleotide, are hairpin-shaped strings of DNA that reveal information in response to the stimulus of shining light.
"When they're not attached to something they don't light up, but when they're attached to a corresponding DNA they do light up," Schulman said.
By using color coding and combinations of colors, the software enables identification of as many as 32,000 genetic markers, which are anything in the body that can be detected in the DNA, Schulman said.
"We can look at one strand of DNA and identify if you have cancer, and it will not be wrong because it's so specific," he said. "You're basically looking at why things happen - it's like the root."
The nonprofit institute developed the molecular beacons and uses them to detect infectious agents, such as viruses, bacteria and fungi, said Fred Kramer, chairman of the institute's department of molecular genetics and a professor at New York University Medical School.
Through a relative, Kramer established contact with Bennett last summer, and they stumbled on a point where Kramer's work and Bennett's academic interests converged. Soon Bennett and his two friends were in New Jersey for a day to visit the lab and discuss with lab scientists what their project could be.
Researchers in the lab had worked extensively with the molecular beacons, which are grouped together to produce identifying codes. They wanted to extend the use of the molecular beacons and needed a method to interpret the code achieved by the molecular beacons' presence. The resulting computer program provided that method, Kramer said.
The lab researchers weren't programmers, so they needed outside help. "We said, `We have no idea how to do this,'" Kramer said. But the students knew how.
Spending hours in Bennett's basement, the three generated a science project that delivered results. "Through the creation of their [computer] program, they have helped us considerably. ... They really did a first-rate job; I was very impressed," Kramer said.
Their software could be used by a biotechnology company to create a more developed and marketable system, offering the possibility of profit in the future.
But for now, the students take pride in the fact that they developed a goal, broke it down and solved it, Kramer said. "And they did it beautifully."
Down the road, Ascione, the biology expert of the group, wants to become a doctor. Bennett and Schulman, who did most of the computer-related work, hope to become computer scientists.
Schulman said he knew he wanted to work with computers when he first saw one at the age of 5. "I love it because you're in control of everything," he said. "You can make it do anything you want - it's so universal."
The boys' friendship grew as they worked on the project, sometimes sacrificing schoolwork, they said. As the science fair date approached, they would work until midnight or after.
"We got to know the pizza guy very well," Ascione said.
Frey, a South River junior who also collected prizes at the science fair, knows about long hours, too. Her solo project, seeking to prove the existence of water on Mars, led her to spend many days collecting data at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, where her father works.
"I've been doing projects on Mars for several years now," Frey said.
Frey said she studied the relationship between two indicators: the presence of hydrogen and gully features on the planet's surface.
"This was the first project of its kind," she said. Researchers have looked at other aspects of the debate over water on Mars but not these two particular factors together.
As one of her awards, Frey will take an all-expense-paid trip to U.S. Space Camp in Alabama this summer.
And she is making plans for another project on Mars for next year's ISEF science fair.
Has she thought about life on Mars? Yes, she said, but she hasn't read enough about it to take on a project like that now. "But anything's a possibility."