Film inspired science contest victors

Conn. brothers analyzed West Nile transmission

N.Y. youth studied brain

December 09, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

In the 1999 movie October Sky, the sons of coal mine workers in West Virginia build rockets and improbably end up winning a national science contest.

That movie inspired two brothers from Connecticut, sons of a nuclear engineer and a special education teacher, who took top honors as a team in this year's Siemens Westinghouse Math, Science and Technology competition.

"We found that really inspirational - to see kids who come from an area that's virtually not on the map," said Mark Schneider, 18, whose project with his brother, Jeffrey, 16, focused on the West Nile virus.

The other top prize winner yesterday is from a place that is decidedly on the map, especially for such competitions.

Yin Li, a senior at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, won in the individual category for research on nerve cell activity in mice that could help improve understanding of human brain function.

The Schneider brothers, who attend South Windsor High School in South Windsor, Conn., a suburb of Hartford, set out to determine whether their mother had legitimate ground for warning them about West Nile virus.

"My brother has a very high susceptibility to mosquito bites," Mark said in a telephone interview. "During the summer, Mom would be like, `Put on long pants or you'll get West Nile.'" So, the brothers developed a computer model of how West Nile virus is transmitted.

Jeffrey said the results showed a relatively low chance of infection. "I found out it wasn't too likely for me as a human," he said. "Mosquitoes would rather bite crows. In fact, they bite crows three times as much as humans. When they bite humans, it's incidental."

So was Mom relieved? "Yeah, definitely," he said.

The brothers used commercially available software to develop an analytic model of how the virus is transmitted. David White, a chemistry teacher at South Windsor High, was their mentor.

Li, the Stuyvesant senior, conducted his work at Columbia University in the laboratory of Dr. Eric R. Kandel, a neuroscientist and a Nobel laureate. Kandel said that Li had made an important contribution to his lab's wider efforts to understand memory functions.

Li's project studied a protein involved with synapses - work that Kandel said "suggests that local protein synthesis is likely to be very important" in human brain function. "For a young kid, that's pretty terrific," he said.

Kandel said he did not work directly with Li but was struck by the parallels in their lives as immigrants who attended New York City public schools. Kandel came to New York from Vienna and attended Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn. Li was born in Shanghai; his father is a computer technician and his mother is a secretary.

Li said he had been fascinated with human brain function - "it's what differentiates human beings from all other organisms" - but had been uncertain about how to pursue his interest. Then, he read the lecture that Kandel gave when he won the Nobel Prize in 2000.

"This is exactly what I have been wanting to know and understand," he said, recalling his reaction to the lecture.

"I couldn't resist contacting the lab and seeing if I could arrange working at the laboratory."

But he was hesitant about approaching one of the world's leading neuroscientists, so he reached out to a graduate student.

Victor R. Ambros, a professor of genetics at Dartmouth Medical School, who was a judge in both the individual and team competitions, said the top winners demonstrated that great science could take place in very different settings.

"The Schneider brothers worked essentially alone," he said. "And Li worked in the premier lab in the world in his field. But in both of those contexts, the judges were able to see clear evidence of their own creativity and independence."

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