Junior scientists display research at St. Francis

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As St. Francis Preparatory High School senior Monika Laszkowska sat in the front row of the school auditorium last week, she was not at all nervous about having to present her scientific research on the p53 tumor suppressor in front of parents and students.

Laszkowska is one of 23 seniors who joined St. Francis Preparatory's three-year Science Research Program at the end of her freshman year. Seniors gave PowerPoint presentations of their research on scientific topics ranging from marine bacteria to autism June 11 during the school's annual science research symposium.

Long before they reach the end of their senior year, students in the Science Research Program begin presenting their research in front of fellow students using PowerPoint software and poster boards.

"It's a great program because the research is highly independent. You pick whatever interests you," said sophomore Daniel Giaccio, who like Laszkowska, chose to research the p53 tumor suppressor, a gene involved in cancer pathways. "Once a month you have to present in front of the class. It's taught me how to present."

Laszkowska, one of three students in the school who were chosen to become semi-finalists in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search competition in January, said the hours spent after school and during the summer traveling to Columbia University and working in the molecular biology research laboratory of her mentor, Dr. Wei Gu, was time well spent.

"It was a great experience," said Laszkowska, who is looking forward to attending Harvard in the fall. "I learned how to do Western blots, gels, transfections, cell culture. I learned that things never come out the way you expect them. There's always problems, but you have to keep trying."

The other two seniors who were chosen as Intel semifinalists are Erwin Wang, who did research on prostate cancer, and Christina Morgan, who researched the relationship between milk consumption and Crohn's disease.

Students apply to be in the Science Research Program during their freshman year, said James Cervino, the school's science research teacher, who runs the program together with science research director Mary Ann Spicijaric. If they are accepted, the students are asked to read and summarize more than 30 articles from science magazines such as Science News, Scientific American and Popular Science before beginning their sophomore year.

In their sophomore year, students hone in on a topic which interests them. They do research on their topic in the library and over the Internet and present their findings to their class once every month. Toward the end of the year, they begin contacting researchers by phone and e-mail to ask if they would be willing to become their research mentor.

"It's intense. Sometimes I feel bad for them," said Cervino, who is finishing up his Ph.D at Columbia University in addition to teaching part time at St. Francis Prep. "But it's 12 college credits if they stick it out for three years, which is worth about $9,000 at NYU."

Science Research Program classes are held before and after the regular school day from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. or from 2:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. Students generally start working with a mentor the summer after their sophomore year and continue doing research with them until the end of their senior year.

In addition to seniors' PowerPoint presentations, the school's science research symposium also featured a poster session in the school's basement cafeteria, where 19 juniors and 24 sophomores presented their research informally to parents and other students.      Standing in front of her poster presentation, junior Jaclyn Golec-Parker said she spent last summer in the Caribbean Keys, where she learned to scuba dive to collect samples of marine bacteria that cause a type of disease that kills coral reefs. This summer she will be working at the city's aquarium in Coney Island, learning about coral husbandry.

"I knew I had an interest in marine biology, so Mr. Cervino introduced me to his lab at Columbia," said Golec-Parker.

Other topics in the poster presentations included research on artificial intelligence and robots, bus scheduling in New York City, a West Nile Virus vaccination, graffiti analysis, use of the club drug Ecstasy by high school seniors, and dream imagery.

Before heading up from the poster session in the cafeteria to listen to seniors' presentations, Rosa Cimino, a parent whose son was one out of 54 freshmen recently accepted into the program, commented on the well-thought-out organization of each of the students' projects.

"All of them are very well done," she said. "I think it's fabulous. It's something they should be really proud of."

Reach reporter Tien-Shun Lee by e-mail at, or call 718-229-0300, ext. 155.

Posted 7:08 pm, October 10, 2011
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