Whitestone teens advance in national science contest

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In many ways, Maria Renee Milcetic of Whitestone is a typical teenager. She is a forward for the Bayside Traveling Soccer Team, has covered the wall’s of her room with music posters and proudly displays the cards she recently received for her 18th birthday.

But the St. Francis Prep senior has another side: she is the author of a complex biological study called, “The Effects of Alpha-Synuclein on Neuromelanin Formation: Implications for Parkinson’s Disease.”

Last week, Milcetic learned that she and her school would be awarded $1,000 each for her study. Milcetic is one of the 300 semifinalists in the Intel Science Talent Search, the oldest pre-college science competition in the country.

New York City high school students performed extremely well in the competition with 36 qualifying as semifinalists. Queens did even better: 19 of those semifinalists are either Queens residents or attend Queens schools.

Milcetic and Moon Hee Lee, 18, are the two semifinalists from Whitestone. On Jan. 30, the two will learn whether or not they have been selected as one of the 40 finalists around the country. After the 40 are given an all-expense paid trip to Washington, D.C., the ultimate winners will be announced on March 11.

“This is money I really didn’t expect to earn,” said Lee, speaking of the prize money. Lee attends Stuyvesant HS next to Ground Zero. Lee said the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and the aftermath distracted her from her project.

Stuyvesant, the Manhattan public school powerhouse, produced 15 semifinalists, second only to Montgomery Blair High School in Maryland. Because of the terrorist attacks that damaged the school, the contest deadline at Stuyvesant was extended by two weeks.

Despite her various honors, which extend from running her school’s science Olympiad team to editing its biomedical publication, Lee spoke humbly about her project, titled “Combining Orientations to Identify Letters.”

“The paper that I sent wasn’t really to my satisfaction,” she said. “The only person who thinks I can make it [as a finalist] is my psychology teacher, who advised the project.”

Lee struggled to describe her project, which concluded that “little detectors in our brain are selective towards orientation, but with real life objects, they are unselective.”

Lee immigrated with her father, Sang Chuo, and her mother, Youn Ok, to the United States from Korea 10 years ago. After living for two years in Illinois, the Lee family came to Whitestone.

Although she initially was surprised to find Whitestone so quiet, Lee said she has learned to enjoy it as a respite from her school in Manhattan.

“Coming back to Whitestone everyday is like a sanctuary,” she said.

Like Lee, Milcetic was humbled to be a semifinalist.

“I was very surprised,” she said. “It’s a very, very hard thing to win.”

Milcetic, who wants to be a pediatrician, took an interest in Parkinson’s disease when she learned that her great grandmother had suffered from the disease. Working with Dr. Kristin E. Larsen of Columbia Presbyterian’s Neurology Department, Milcetic focused on the effects of a protein on the body chemistry of someone with Parkinson’s.

Milcetic developed a strong interest in biology in seventh grade, when she began studying the circulatory and respiratory systems.

“I found it so much fun,” she said. “It was so interesting.”

Flushing also did well in the competition with Vivian Ho, 17, a Stuyvesant student, and Wanqing Li, 17, a Brooklyn Tech student, becoming semifinalists.

Ho, who runs sound effects on many of her school’s shows, studied musical perception using a computer program to compare how 10 people trained in music and 10 people untrained in music picked up tones.

“Novices seemed to care more about simper things, such as pitch,” Ho concluded.

Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 141.

Updated 10:26 am, October 12, 2011
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