Howard teen mixes yogurt, science to win honor

November 18, 2006|By John-John Williams IV | John-John Williams IV,Sun reporter

Serena Fasano loves yogurt - she's particularly partial to a vanilla-flavored brand complemented by a chocolate-crunch topping.

Her work on yogurt's anti-bacterial qualities has earned the 16-year-old Howard County high school senior a trip to the regional Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology, held at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh this weekend.

"I just saw something that had always been there," Fasano said of her research, which focused on a protein in yogurt that blocks the growth of a particular kind of bacteria and which could hold promise for the treatment of intestinal diseases.

3 state students

Fasano, who attends Glenelg High School, is one of three Maryland high school students to qualify for the regional competition. The others are Jeffrey Guo and Victoria Yao, both of Montgomery Blair High School in Montgomery County. Six winners from regional contests will compete in New York City next month at the national finals, which include a $100,000 scholarship.

More than 1,600 participated in this year's competition nationwide, said Jim Whaley, president of the Siemens Foundation, which awards the scholarships ranging from $10,000 to $100,000. In addition to Fasano, this year's Baltimore-area semifinalists included:

Emma Call, a senior at Polytechnic Institute, whose project used microengineering to create tiny metallic cubes - each no larger than a speck of dust - that she believes could one day be used to treat diseases such as diabetes.

Lillian Yu, a senior at River Hill High School in Clarksville, whose project examined the ability of a protein to inhibit HIV reproduction.

Shyam Srinivasan, a senior at Centennial High School in Ellicott City, whose project involved stem cell research.

Fasano's project, "Identification and Characterization of a Novel Anti-Bacterial Protein Elaborated by Lactobacillus GG" grew out of a science fair project she completed her freshman year.

Through the course of the work on that project she noticed that something in yogurt blocked the growth of E. coli 042, the bacteria that cause diarrhea.

Protein discovered

This past winter, Fasano discovered the specific protein band in yogurt that acts as a repellent to E. coli 042.

"That was very exciting moment - that week was just crazy," said Fasano, who in January received a patent for her discovery of the protein. Later that month she was interviewed on CNN.

For the past year, Fasano has worked closely with Dr. James Nataro and Dr. Ruliang Lu of the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

There is still much more work to be done in order to turn her discovery into an eventual treatment for people in poorer nations. Fasano said that intestinal diseases kill 6 million people a year.

"Right now we have vaccines, but they are not 100 percent effective, and they are expensive," said Fasano. "It's a huge problem, but unfortunately not focused on a lot in the United States."

Monetary award

As regional finalists, Fasano, Guo, and Yao each has earned $3,000 and a silver medal. In addition, their schools will be awarded $2,000.

Despite all of her recent success, Fasano insists that she is just a regular teen - she admits to listening to Mariah Carey CDs while completing research in the laboratory.

"None of this was easy for me," she said. "But when I am researching, I love it. That is just the case when you find anybody who loves what they do."

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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