Three pioneering students head to international science fair
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A year ago, Matthew Vernacchia, 17, was listening to a radio show about a program being developed by computer scientists that would allow a paralyzed artist to create artwork with his eyes.
"It sounded really cool. I wanted to make my own version of that," Matthew said of what would become "Iris Eye Typing Interface" -- his winning entry in the 72nd Annual Pittsburgh Regional Science and Engineering Fair held at Heinz Field in early April and sponsored by the Carnegie Science Center.
For their scientific research judged tops from among 315 senior division entries, the Upper St. Clair senior and three other students from suburban high schools will advance, all expenses paid and accompanied by chaperones, to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles next week.
The other winning students are:
• Adam Dando, from Franklin Regional High School in Murrysville, for "Nitrite Retention Chemistry"
• Natalie Nash, from Vincentian Academy in McCandless, for "Optimal Keyboard for the Disabled"
• Ishan Chatterjee, from Fox Chapel Senior High School, for "Effect of BAT3 on Autophagy in HCT116 Cancer Cell Line." They will be among the more than 1,500 high school students worldwide competing for more than $4 million in scholarships, tuition grants, internships, scientific field trips, and a grand prize of a trip to the Nobel Prize ceremonies in Stockholm, Sweden.
In Matthew's project, a computer program he invented determines the location of the center of a patient's eyes and compares that with the location of the iris to determine where a patient is looking.
"It could be valuable in an intensive care unit in which patients have conditions that do not allow them to communicate through speech or writing," said Matthew, who would like to become an engineer.
As with Matthew, the desire to make a difference drove Natalie's project, which reflects her career goal of using technology to improve lives.
After meeting a non-verbal woman with cerebral palsy who used her head to hit keyboard letters to communicate, the Shaler teen, 16, wrote a computer program that led to her producing a "significantly better" keyboard than the commercially available device.
"It will take less time for them to say what they have to say," she said. "The project taught me you never stop giving up -- you have to keep analyzing and pushing through the data to find something worthwhile that will help somebody."
The journey resulting in Ishan's project began last summer at a poster session at the Hillman Cancer Center during which Ishan, 16, asked two doctors if he could volunteer at the lab.
They, in turn, gave him a medical paper on oncology.
"Being my first exposure to oncology, I looked up every third word on Wikipedia, every fifth word on Google, and for every 14th word, I accepted the fact that someone invented the word and kept it there because it sounded complicated," he said.
Eventually figuring it out, he discussed the paper with Michael Lotze, who admitted him into the lab -- then gave him new papers.
"The more I threw at him the more he came back," said Dr. Lotze, a professor of surgery, immunology and bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh.
The basis for Ishan's project was work done in the lab last spring by German researcher Elke Pogge-Von Strandmann on the role of the BAT3 protein in cancer immunity, although Ishan took the topic in a different direction.
In his experiment, he grew cells to which he applied treatments of chemotherapy, ultraviolet light, hydrogen peroxide, or starvation.
"Cancer cells can survive otherwise toxic chemotherapy by utilizing a cellular mechanism called autophagy, a stress response pathway," he said.
"My experiment found a previously unknown function of BAT3 as a regulator of autophagy," said Ishan, who may eventually pursue bioengineering and become a medical doctor.
Dr. Lotze said he is off to a good start.
"Conventional cancer therapy, like radiation and chemotherapy, are designed to kill cancer cells, but have not been as effective as we might like. His work suggests a new way that we could allow tumor cells to die a natural death," he said.
Ishan will shortly begin full-time work in the two-year-old University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute Summer Academy for 25 high school students.
While Ishan will receive a stipend, Dr. Lotze suspects Ishan will value the educational aspect more.
"It's really a fundamental introduction to cancer research, and he has a thirst for knowledge," Dr. Lotze said.
For more information on the International Science and Engineering Fair, visit: www.societyforscience.org.
First Published May 5, 2011 12:00 am