Bayside student named to finals in Intel competition

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A Bayside Stuyvesant High School student and a Forest Hills Bronx High School of Science student were among the 40 students nationwide to be chosen as finalists last week in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search competition.

To recognize their excellence in scientific research, Varun Narendra, 17, of Bayside, and Yi-Chen "Lilly" Zhang, 17, of Forest Hills, will each receive $5,000 in scholarship money and a chance at winning the top prize of $100,000, which will be awarded at a black-tie banquet in Washington, D.C. on March 11.

      "It's pretty rewarding," said Narendra, whose research project involved using the programming language Mathematica to construct a bio-mathematical model for Gaucher disease, a rare inherited disorder of fat metabolism caused by an enzyme deficiency. "There are so many kinks you have to figure out. It's really exciting when things finally work."

Narendra found his mentors, Daniel Forger, a graduate student in applied math at New York University, and Dr. Charles Peskin, a principal investigator in biomathematics at NYU, sophomore year through his aunt, who works at NYU medical center.

After working for a year in the laboratory studying patient blood samples, Narendra decided to focus on developing a mathematical model for the disease.

Patients with Gaucher disease must receive enzyme replacement therapy once every two weeks to help them to digest a certain kind of lipid, Narendra explained. The model he constructed sought to track the concentration of the lipid-digesting enzyme through time in order to optimize enzyme therapy.

"The model is used to study which dosage is optimal," said Narendra. "You don't want to saturate the system because then you're just wasting enzyme and that costs a lot of money."

In the future, Narendra thinks he may study applied math or biomedical engineering, while Zhang hopes to become a doctor or a Ph.D. researcher.

Zhang, whose research project examined the influence of pesticides on cockroach allergens associated with respiratory diseases such as asthma, said she was completely thrilled and still a little bit dazed after finding out that she is an Intel finalist.

"I can't believe the cockroach project won over possible cures for Alzheimer's and treatments for cancer," Zhang said.

Zhang began her research on cockroach allergens the summer after her freshman year after she met her mentor, Dr. Ginger Chew, an assistant professor at the Columbia University School of Public Health, while she was collecting dust at Bronx Science to be examined in the laboratory for allergens.

Since most allergies to cockroaches are reactions to proteins in cockroach digestive enzymes, Zhang was curious to find out how digestion of pesticides would affect allergen production.

Under Chew's supervision, Zhang cultivated 27 separate 10-roach colonies in rubber tubs, feeding them rat pellets, water and their appropriate sub-lethal dosage of pesticide. Some roach colonies received pesticides containing boric acid, while other colonies received pesticides without boric acid.

Zhang concluded that if pesticides containing boric acid are used, the cockroaches increase their production of an allergen called Blag2.

"The implication is if you're an asthmatic person and you use this pesticide, it might exacerbate your condition," Zhang said.

Zhang, Narendra and the other chosen Intel STS finalists will present their work in front of four sets of judging committees during their all-expense paid trip to Washington, D.C. from March 6-11. After rigorous judging, 10 students will be awarded additional college scholarships totaling $500,000.

Zhang and her biology teacher, Richard Lee, are planning on meeting after school to practice giving Powerpoint and posterboard presentations of Zhang's research.

"It's a lot more work, but I think it's totally worth it," Zhang said. "It's quite daunting, but really exciting."

Both Zhang and Narendra worked full time on their research projects during the summers, and about eight to 10 hours a week during the school year.

In addition to classwork and research, Narendra plays football, tennis and the saxophone in school. He likes to experiment with weaving saxophone into Indian classical music.

Zhang, whose father is an artist, likes to paint landscapes using oil paints on canvas. She has also recently taken up an interest in economics, her "newest hobby."

Besides Zhang and Narendra, the city had three other Intel STS finalists this year. Two were from Stuyvesant High School and one was from Brooklyn Technical High School.

Reach reporter Tien-Shun Lee by e-mail at, or call 1-718-229-0300, Ext. 155.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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