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Yeshiva teens win spots on Siemens list

Three students at Yeshiva University’s High School for Girls in Hillcrest were named semifinalists in the Siemens Science and Technology Competition after they entered research projects they hope could advance cancer research and bone transplants.

High school seniors Helene Sonenberg, 17, of Hillcrest, and Ayelet Abelow, 17, of New Rochelle, N.Y., partnered with Jeremy Sacks, a student from the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway in Lawrence, L.I., to research the effects of gold nanoparticles on osteoblasts — cells that build bones in mammals — and rat osteosarcoma cells, bone-building cells that contain cancer, which they said could create more effective chemotherapy.

Rachel Shapiro, 17, of Riverdale, studied how dental pulp stem cells, which come from teeth, could help to repair or regenerate damaged tissue, which could prove to be an immense help for bone transplants.

“We were very excited,” Sonenberg said about being named semifinalists. “It was a shock.”

Yeshiva University’s High School for Girls had more semifinalists this year than any other yeshiva high school in the country. The school is at 86-86 Palo Alto St. in Holliswood.

The Siemens competition is an elite contest entered by 1,329 groups across the country, and 300 were named semifinalists. The girls are not finalists, but they said they plan to enter their research projects into a variety of other high-profile contests, including state and city science competitions.

The students began their projects during the summer at Stony Brook University, where they lived from June to August, with the help of two mentors, professors Miriam Rafailovich and Yizhi Meng. The work not only helped the teens advance academically — they were able to use lab equipment often not accessible to students until graduate school, but Abelow said they could apply the lessons learned while doing research to their lives in general.

“You have to take initiative in science,” Abelow said. “You have to think outside the box.”

Though the specific research they entered for the Siemens contest began last summer, the path to this achievement began years ago, when the girls entered the high school’s Science Institute.

Ruth Fried, director of the Science Institute, said she launched the program not long after Sonenberg, Abelow and Shapiro entered the high school in order to accommodate the “great love of science” the students had. The institute provides students with a chance to do intense scientific work, including studying research methodology and participating in the high school research internship program at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

“It’s really nice to have a program that allows you to have a great understanding of science,” Shapiro said. “It takes your science experience outside the classroom.”

The summer after their junior year, the students attended the Stony Brook program, in which 60 students from across the country participated and did independent research.

“I’m so proud of them,” Fried said. “Even if they don’t end up going into science, they’ve gained an amazing work ethic and sense of camaraderie.”

C.B. Neugroschl, the head of the school, said she, too, was thrilled with the students being named semifinalists.

“It’s a reflection of real hard work and a serious exposure to scholarship,” Neugroschl said.

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at agustafson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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