Two Charlotte juniors to attend international science fair in May

03/03/2014 4:18 PM

03/03/2014 4:20 PM

Two Charlotte 16-year-olds are headed to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) at Los Angeles in May.

For those not acquainted with the realm of science fairs, ISEF is big-time. It hosts 1,600 high school students from 70 countries to share findings and compete for more than $4 million in awards, the fair’s website says.

Sunny Potharaju, a junior at Ardrey Kell High, will go to the world’s largest international, pre-college science fair (according to ISEF’s website) for a second year in a row.

“It’s just an amazing experience. It’s almost like the Olympics for scientific competitions,” he said. “It’s an all-expense-paid trip for a week to talk to really smart people and Nobel laureates.”

He’ll be joined by first-timer Emily Ashkin, a junior at Providence Day School.

So what did Sunny and Emily do to get their ticket to Los Angeles? Their presentations at the Regional Science and Engineering Fair at UNC Charlotte in February qualified them to bypass the state science fair and head straight for ISEF in May.

Sunny’s project is called, “Computational analysis of the dynamics in single-chain FV fragments of the anti-lymphotoxin-B receptor antibody upon various amino acid mutations.” (Note: That B is as close as the Observer’s system can get to the Greek beta.)

He built on his previous project about “protein-folding,” which can lead to clots and cancer in the body. This summer, he worked in Don Jacobs’ bioinformatics lab at UNC Charlotte, and looked for correlations between normal and mutated proteins that had similar areas of flexibility. Knowing those correlations can help drug companies figure out better treatment for certain cells. His research found that 1/5 of the time there were similarities, and that’s given him a baseline for further research.

Jacobs, an associate physics professor, said he took on Sunny because he’d already seen his previous posters on protein-folding and knew Sunny’s interests fit his research. He said Sunny was an independent worker and fast learner: “I think he picked up some things faster than my undergrads.”

Emily’s project is titled, “MUC1 as a biomarker for TGF-B1 inhibition: Investigating the role of MUC1 in the switch of TGF-B1 function from a tumor suppressor to a tumor promoter in pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma.” (B for beta again.)

Here’s a translation: She’s found a possible lead for a better treatment for pancreatic cancer. Her research found that a protein’s presence in the blood appears to correlate with the sudden, rapid change in tumor growth that’s characteristic of pancreatic cancer. Being able to monitor that protein through blood tests could lead to more effective treatment of pancreatic cancer.

Emily worked all summer in Pinku Mukherjee’s lab at UNC Charlotte on what became her project. Mukherjee, a biology professor, said Emily was a passionate and dedicated intern.

“A lot of times experiments would fail, and she would of course be disappointed, but would get up and want to do it again,” Mukherjee said.

When Emily found a correlation between the protein and the tumor growth, she cried. “In the future I want to continue (this research), definitely, and hopefully one day I’ll be implementing it in clinical trials.”

Both are gaining travel experience because of the projects: Sunny just returned from a conference in Chicago, and Emily will leave the East Coast for the first time and represent North Carolina at a competition in China.

But ISEF holds the most excitement: “It’s a dream come true,” Emily said. “I think I’ve dreamt about going to this since I’ve been about 12 years old.”

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