Bellerose teen reaches Intel semifinals

Olivia Munk discusses her research project with fellow Bronx High School of Science students. Photo courtesy Alex Thorp, Bronx Science Observatory
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The scientific establishment is paying recognition to Bellerose student Olivia Munk for all the hours she has spent toiling away in her laboratory to better mankind.

The 17-year-old Bronx High School of Science senior began studying how sensory depravation and enrichment affect neurological changes in rodents nearly two years ago, and earlier this month she was named as a semifinalist in this year’s Intel Science Talent Search competition.

“We gave some mice toys, and some we trimmed their whiskers,” said the alumna of PS/IS 266, in Glen Oaks. “For 30 days we’d trade off enrichment and depravation and see what happened different. The question I’m asking is, ‘Can enrichment make up for depravation?’”

Munk said her research has applications in finding what kinds of therapies can help overcome disabilities such as autism.

About 2,000 students from 497 high schools submitted entries for the contest, and Munk is one of the 300 semifinalists who will receive a $1,000 award from the Intel Foundation.

“It was a pretty big opportunity and I worked really hard on the project, so it’s great to be recognized,” she said.

On Jan. 25, the competition will name 40 finalists who will receive an all expenses paid-trip to Washington, D.C., in March, when they will compete for the top award of $100,000 as they rub elbows with notable scientists.

“It helps with college recognition, and it would be nice to have a little less to pay,” said Munk, who when she is not in the lab or doing homework spends her free time following her other passions: theater and dance.

“She’s very well-rounded,” said Queens College psychology professor Joshua Brumberg, Munk’s adviser on her research project, entitled “Environmen­tal Enrichment Influences Neuronal Structure Well into Adulthood.”

“She enjoys dancing and she starred in her high school play last year,” he said. “She’s multi-faceted, which I think is great fun in the lab.”

Munk nurtured her early theatrical aspirations at the American Dance and Drama Studio in Fresh Meadows, and as she prepares to direct a show she and her friends wrote, she is looking for a college where she can study dance and theater along with cognitive neural science.

Brumberg offered glowing praise for his protege, and said he thinks she has the capability to develop into a leader of any field she eventually chooses.

“I would sometimes forget that she’s only a high school student,” he said. “I think she’s interested in a career in the biomedical sciences and medicine, but she hasn’t graduated high school yet. Those kinds of things change.”

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4574.

Updated 1:35 am, January 26, 2012
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