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John Jay seniors advance in national science competition

Dan Fulop and Kevin Pawlak were anxiously waiting to find out if they had made it. In the John Jay High School library last week, they were refreshing a computer screen to see if their names were there.

When their names finally appeared, the two seniors jumped and yelled for joy as their fellow library-goers wondered what they could possibly be so excited about.

What had Dan and Kevin so happy was seeing their names among the semifinalists of the Intel Science Talent Search (Intel STS), a national science research competition for high school seniors.

John Jay High School seniors Kevin Pawlak and Dan Fulop were named semifinalists in the 2013 Intel Science Talent Search, a national science research competition.

The two South Salem residents were among 300 semifinalists out of 1,712 entrants for the 2013 competition, which will announce its 40 finalists on Wednesday, Jan. 23.

“Dan and Kevin were truly passionate about their research projects,” John Jay science teacher Ann Marie Lipinsky said. “Both young men worked for many hours over the summer and both came back to school with exciting results and they remained committed to presenting their work and polishing their papers.”

The competition

The Intel STS is a program of the Society for Science & the Public and is a platform for high school seniors to present original research to professional scientists. To enter the competition, students must submit thorough applications that include research papers and recommendations.

Semifinalists receive a $1,000 award, and schools receive a $1,000 award for each of their semifinalists.

The 40 finalists are invited to attend the Intel Science Talent Institute in Washington, D.C., from March 7 to 13, when they will undergo further judging and share $630,000 in awards.

Dan and Kevin are John Jay’s first semifinalists in the competition since 2009, when valedictorian Abigail Greene made the finals.

Research

Students submit their applications for the competition in the fall, but the process begins long before that. For John Jay students in the school’s Science Research program, it is a process that develops throughout their high school careers,

As they enter their sophomore years, John Jay students consider what field of science they want to research. At the end of their junior year they have a plan, and during the summer before their senior year they conduct their research.

Dan and Kevin both spent five to seven days per week, nine to 10 hours per day, this past summer conducting research in a lab for their projects.

The title of Dan’s research was “Can microRNAs revert cirrhotic hepatic stellate cells to a healthy quiescent state?”

Stemming from a trip to MIT before his sophomore year, Dan’s interest was in the effort to cure cancer.

“I saw that there’s this form of RNA interference which suppresses proteins,” he said. “They can either cause cancer or repress cancer, so I was interested in that.”

Dan conducted his research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, commuting each day during the summer.

Kevin had long known that he wanted to do something in the field of microbiology, and the title of his work was “Determining efficacy of QSI-antibiotic combination therapy against Pseudomonas aeruginosa.”

“After reading for about a year, I was driven toward unconventional antibacterial therapies,” he said. “It’s important because a lot of people get urinary tract infections that can’t be solved through the use of traditional antibiotics. So what I did was I combined something that prevents cell-to-cell communication from working with an antibiotic, and saw what that did, essentially.”

Kevin spent part of his summer at Texas Tech University conducting research.

Despite the long hours and meticulous work, both students said it was worth it.

“It’s a very rewarding experience, and I’d definitely do it again if I had the chance,” Kevin said.

Working in labs with graduate students and professionals was an education in itself.

“You’re this 17-year-old kid and you’re working with 30-year-old Ph.D.s and technicians who are all somewhat amazed that you can do this stuff,” Dan said.

John Jay science teacher Dr. Linda Burke said that Dan and Kevin “have demonstrated dedication and perseverance throughout their three years in John Jay’s Science Research program. Not only have they diligently pursued their own research, but they have also served as role models for the enrolled underclassmen.”

Future plans

Dan and Kevin would love to make the trip to the capital as finalists, but their research has helped point them toward their future paths regardless of the outcome.

While they are both unsure where they will attend college next year, they are both interested in pursuing careers in science.

Kevin said he wants to double major in biological sciences and history before attending medical school, with the hope of becoming a surgeon or scientific researcher.

Dan would also like to double major, possibly in biology and business, before going to medical school to become a surgeon.

In the meantime, they will continue learning and preparing for bright scientific futures.

“While the recognition is wonderful and welcome, it is the research experience that is truly the reward,” Ms. Lipinsky said. “The opportunity for students to work on a research project under the guidance of a scientist, to choose the area of study in a high school setting, learn lab techniques, research methods, time management, as well as developing public speaking and presentation skills, all while directing your own learning for three years, is an experience that stays with the science research students for a lifetime.”

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