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Young Einsteins Tackle Energy Crisis, Terrorism & Pigeon Waste


Can pigeon waste be used to spread a dangerous fungus affecting millions of people?  How can carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas linked to global warming, be used to extract a natural gas, methane, to help curb our energy crisis?  How can we protect New York’s computers from hackers and terrorism?

These are just some of the cutting-edge scientific topics being tackled by 55 students in the Academy’s Science Research Training Program.  Now in its 30th year, the eight-week summer program has prepared thousands of high school students for careers in the sciences by training them to do hands-on, scientific research with leading scientists from institutions such as Columbia University, Burke Rehabilitation Center, New York Medical College, NYU School of Medicine, and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Each spring, hundreds of students from public and private schools located in New York City, Westchester, Long Island, New Jersey and Connecticut apply to get into this competitive program, which is open only to newcomers.  Students choose their favorite category (i.e., biology, chemistry, computer science) and are assigned a mentor.  After working Monday to Thursday, students supplement their lab experiences by attending special Friday workshops held at the Academy.  The workshops examine the responsibilities of a scientist from a multiplicity of perspectives and discuss issues such as writing and presenting scientific papers.  Last week, the Academy held a panel discussion on alternative science careers featuring New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin, astrophysicist Garret Schneider and lawyer and chemist Mary Jane O’Connell.

Working with her mentor, Dr. Jason Nieh from Columbia University, Janice Escobar, a fifteen-year-old student from Manhattan’s Chapin School, has embarked on a project not likely to be found in a typical high school science textbook —mapping cell phone networks in order to prevent new acts of terrorism.  “Recently, terrorists in Iraq have been using cell phones to detonate bombs,” she observed.  “Perhaps our research could ultimately help prevent events like that from happening in Manhattan.  We’re also mapping out the number of open access points in the city.  Where there is an open access point, Internet hackers could do a number of harmful things: break into private files, download illegal programs, and create viruses.”

Another student, Steven Mieses from the Bronx’s High School of American Studies at Lehman College, is studying pigeons—but from the perspective of a lab bench rather than that of a park. “Cryptoccoccus neoformans is a fungus commonly found in pigeon waste and affects people who are immunocompromised,” he says. “New York City is heavily populated with pigeons, putting people with HIV, or people who have undergone immunosuppressive therapy such as chemotherapy, at risk of contracting this deadly pathogenic fungus.”

Working with his mentor, Dr. Arturo Casadevall at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Steven studies Crypotoccoccus neoformans cells under a microscope and tests for antibodies.  “By helping to make these antibodies for GalXM, we can possibly eliminate one of the many opportunistic infections in the world and save thousands of lives,” he says. “This is why science is my favorite subject—in the lab, I never know if the day will end in failure or success.  What I do know is that the day is going to have many surprises.”

Unexpected discoveries and surprising results are true to the experience of real scientists, says Matthew Kelly, the Program’s Coordinator. “The purpose of the program is to give students a taste of what real-life scientific research is all about,” he says.  “Students thrive on satisfying their curiosity.”  Yena Jun, a student from New Jersey’s Academy for the Advancement of Science and Technology, stresses that’s why she became a SRTP student. “At my school, the results of the lab experiments are often known before the experiments actually take place,” says. “In the SRTP program, we don’t know what the results will be.”

Yena and Zeke Miller, a student from Davis Renov Stahler Yeshiva High School for Boys in Woodmere, New York, are studying how methane gas might be extracted and used as an alterative fuel, a project that would help today’s energy crisis. “Gas hydrates, which are found in huge quantities in marine and Arctic sediments, contain twice the amount of carbon found in all other fossil fuels and make them a significant energy source in the future,” she observes.  “However, extracting methane hydrates from sediments in the ocean floor may cause landslides or lead to further climate change.  We’re looking at how carbon dioxide might be used to replace methane, an intriguing concept that would kill two birds with one stone – use methane as a fuel and reduce the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, a cause of global warming.”

It’s challenging subjects like these and their potential to make an impact on today’s society that has SRTP students hooked on science. “I hope that my research will help speed up progress in curbing dependence upon foreign oil – with methane in such abundant supply, this would be a potential solution to the world’s energy problems,” Zeke says.

Steven adds, “The information I learn here will be with me forever, and I can take it wherever I go.”#

For more information on the Science Research Training Program, contact Matthew Kelly at 212.838.0230 ext. 348 or email mkelly@nyas.org.



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