Barrington High School students' science fair projects shine at states

Isabelle Chen’s project earns invite to ISEF

By Josh Bickford
Posted 4/17/24

Her eyes light up when she starts talking — Isabelle Chen is truly, genuinely excited as she describes her science fair project.  

The Barrington High School junior is sitting at a …

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Barrington High School students' science fair projects shine at states

Isabelle Chen’s project earns invite to ISEF


Her eyes light up when she starts talking — Isabelle Chen is truly, genuinely excited as she describes her science fair project. 

The Barrington High School junior is sitting at a large conference table with about a dozen other students, and each of them shows a similar spark. Their projects captured awards and, in many cases, top-10 rankings at this year’s state science fair. 

Their work is complex, and carries titles such as “Predicting drug-induced acute porphyria using machine learning classification methods” or “Jumping Genes: A potential molecular target for Alzheimer's disease intervention” or “Uncovering targeted mutation in the genomes of filamentous cyanobacteria.” 

And while those titles may seem potentially challenging to fully absorb for an outsider, the students are also quite adept at offering clear, understandable explanations.

Here is what the students had to say about their work:

Athena Gao and Emma Pautz

Athena and Emma are juniors are Barrington High School who partnered on a science fair project that focused on gene expression in glioblastoma. 

“We researched Glioblastoma which is a very aggressive form of brain cancer, and we wanted to find some potential treatments for it,” Emma said. “The problem with Glioblastoma is its location in the brain, makes it difficult to operate on and it also has a blood brain barrier, which makes it difficult to administer treatments. And also its aggressive nature makes it difficult to apply traditional methods like chemotherapy and radiation.”

Athena said the five-year fatality rate for glioblastoma is more 94 percent. 

“What Emma and I did is approach it from a more unique angle which is looking at gene expression, meaning how expressed certain genes were and then we analyzed about 2,454 genes and came down with a list of nine that should be targeted. 

“What we realized is that you could actually use immunotherapy, which hasn’t really been looked at in brain cancer. We’re hoping to further look at it in clinical trials.”

Their project, which was titled “Investigation of Gene Expression in Glioblastoma Vasculature Reveals Novel Connection to Immune Function,” was awarded First Grant at the state science fair.

Malak Ennaji

Malak had a simple question driving the work involved in her science fair project.

“I kind of questioned if breakfast is actually the most important meal of the day,” Malak said. “And I went on from there. Does different eating frequencies effect your health in any way?”

Malak’s work yielded interesting results.

“I found it does,” Malak said. “The less frequently you eat throughout the day, the lower your glucose and insulin levels will be. So it’s more beneficial.”

Malak offered a possible explanation to the adage that breakfast was the most important meal of the day: “You also have to look at marketing,” she said. “…It is, in a way, marketing for cereal brands. And cereal really brings up your glucose.”

Isabelle Chen

The BHS junior earned a number of awards at the state science fair. Isabelle’s work, titled “A potential molecular target for Alzheimer's disease intervention,” was selected Best in Fair, First Grant. Isabelle will be one of two students representing Rhode Island at the International Science and Engineering Fair next month. The ISEF is the premier international science fair.

Isabelle’s project focused on Alzheimer’s disease, and a specific gene, and a potential treatment. She said there has been limited research conducted on the Line 1 gene.

“I noticed in osteoarthritis and in Alzheimer’s (patients) they have very similar mobility difficulties,” she said. “Osteoarthritis patients limp a lot. So that’s what I saw in the AD (Alzheimer’s disease) mouse model. Then I thought that maybe these mice, maybe Line 1 (gene) plays some kind of role in these AD mice, because this study has shown that not only does Alzheimer’s affect the brain, but it also affects mobility. So that was a huge discovery. 

“Also, I proved that 3TC, which is (a drug) used to treat HIV, can also possibly be repurposed to treat Alzheimer’s disease, as when I tested the levels, it fixed the mobility difficulties of the AD mice. Also in my research it showed it suppressed the levels of Line 1… I have a lot of different conclusions but the biggest one is that 3TC can be used to treat Alzheimer’s disease. Since it’s already an FDA-approved drug, it’ll be a more efficient process to create this new treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.”

Isabelle said she has a personal connection to her project. 

“My inspiration comes from my grandparents. Both of them suffer from aging-related diseases,” Isabelle said. “They’re my main inspiration, passion for my project. My grandma had osteoarthritis and my grandpa had Parkinson’s disease. Whenever I visited them, I would see them in China once a year, they would be in a lot of pain.”

Isabelle’s project also won the Regeneron Biomedical Science Award, the Rhode Island Health-Systems Pharmacists Award, and The Yale Science and Engineering Association Award for Most Oustanding Exhibit in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics at Rhode Island Science and Engineering Fair. She also received a $1,000 scholarship to URI.

“I have had my research published in a poster. It’s called ORS. International meeting for researchers. 

It’s already in clinical trials now,” she said.

Sara Chang

Sara’s project focused on a topic that was very person to her. The Barrington High School junior analyzed the effect of mixed-gender positive feedback would have on the gender ratios of high school STEM classes, and particularly at BHS. 

Sara, who used to live in the Bay Area in California, said she has noticed that it has been difficult for her to break into “that smart all-boys research group” at school. 

“Especially when it comes to self-choosing projects, it’s just like stigmas stereotypes, you could never break into that group. And I wanted to do something to change that,” she said. 

Sara self-produced a one-minute video clip that showed different people in her grade saying or sharing their mixed-gender teamwork experiences. The clip was intended to incentivize this year’s class of students to form more balanced mixed-gender groups.

“I found it to be successful,” Sara said. “After showing the video to this year’s class of students, using the video clips of last year’s class, I was able to determine there was a 36 percent increase in the formation of mixed gender groups.”

Rahul Yehia 

Rahul’s work focused on blue-green algae. In particular, the Barrington High School junior examined accelerated evolution through mutations. 

“I did multiple tests in conjunction with current research he’s doing at Woods Hole,” Rahul said. “I was looking into whether there’s mutation in the plasma and whether that mutation is effecting the overall organism as a whole. 

“I was able to find that the location in the plasma was not mutating at the same exact rate as the ones in the main chromosome, which is either do to location or past evolutionary flexed end points and processes.”

Rahul’s project was selected First Grant and earned him a URI scholarship as well. 

Julia Edgar-Smith and Iris Yang

Julia and Iris entered their project in the Computational Biology and Bioinformatics category. The two BHS students completed a machine learning project the predict drug-induced acute porphyria. 

“We wanted use something that would be applicable to be real life,” Julia said, adding that the machine learning opened the door to better understanding how certain drugs can cause diseases. 

“And we wanted to use a rare disease so we used acute porphyria because it’s a very rare disease. And there hasn’t been a lot of studies done. We wanted to do something that had real life implications.”

Alexandra Ford

The Barrington High School sophomore completed her science project on the repercussions of nitrogen-rich fertilizer and resulting blue-green algae blooms. 

“I set up an experiment using different concentrations of fertilizer and putting a set amount of cyanobacteria (blue green algae) in each one. And I was able to find a strong correlation with the more fertilizer you use and introduced to the cyanobacteria, the more blooms that occurred and the more cyanobacteria there was,” Alexandra said. 

The local student said she has noticed the problems associated with blue green algae blooms. 

“(T)hey have so many negative effects on the environment, so I really wanted to know the effect that we, as people, are having on the increase in cyanobacteria blooms,” she said. “I was able to see that fertilizer was one of those main factors. So when people use more fertilizer, then there are more blooms and there are more negative effects on these ecosystems.”

Katherine Yang 

Katherine’s project was entered in the Biomedical and Health Science category, and earn a Best in Fair award. The BHS sophomore examined the approach of blocking deacetylase 11, or H-Dac 11, against cisplatin-induced tubular cell apoptosis.

“I looked into this particular chemotherapeutic drug called cisplatin. It’s a very popular, very potent drug that a lot of people use, and it’s super-effective in treating lung cancer and things like that, but it has a bunch of negative side effects and one of the side effects is something called nephrotoxicity, which is basically when it gets to your kidney, your kidney is not able to filter it, so it’s going to cause the death of your kidney cells,” Yang said.

Yang’s work focused on down-regulating H-DAC 11 or inhibiting it so that it would decrease kidney cell damage. She said her research showed that the approach could serve as a potentially good solution to fix the cisplatin-induced acute kidney injury that would come from chemotherapeutic treatment.

In addition to being selected Best in Fair, Yang’s project was also chosen as the alternate to represent Rhode Island at the International Science and Engineering Fair.

Onson Tieu and Jason Lu

The Barrington High School sophomores created a website where users could input data about themselves — their gender, age, where they live, etc. — and the website would analyze the information and provide a personalized response about their risks of getting Lyme disease.

Onson said there was a personal connection to the work — Jason’s dad had been diagnosed with Lyme disease.

“Lyme disease is also really common in areas like New England,” Onson said. “We thought that doing a project about something that a lot of people are affected by here would be good.”

Onson said he and Jason are still fine-tuning the website, but he hopes that they will be able to share with a larger audience at some point in the near future. 

Siddharth Gupta

He is a sophomore at Barrington High School and he wants to clean up social media.

With his science project, Siddharth is attempting to use artificial intelligence to moderate the language used on social media. His work focused on the social media platform Discord.

“It’s pretty big, used pretty widely by the younger generation — 150 million users a month,” he said. “As somebody who uses it myself, I’ve seen toxicity on the site. And so I wanted to create something that might be able to combat that to some extent.” 

Siddharth is using natural language processing — or NLP — to mitigate the amount of negative content. 

“If it sees something that is toxic or negative, it will just flag it. It won’t remove anything. It doesn’t censor anything,” Siddharth said. 

He added that he wanted to make sure that “whatever I created was transparent and understandable for everyone.” 

Siddharth explained some of the work that went into his project. 

“In AI there’s a subfield called Natural language processing. Basically what this field studies is how do we make computers understand language,” he said. “One really big thing inside that is sentiment analysis. How do you gauge the sentiment of sentence. If I say ‘I love this.’ This is positive. We can tell this as humans, but how would a computer know that. There’s a couple different ways that you can teach computers, and different models that you can use. I used a couple of those.

“Basically, I used a couple different tools to check it for bias and make it more transparent, and I open-sourced all the code. One of the long-term plans is to scale it, right? To do that, I’d probably have to pay some money,” he said.  

Siddharth’s science fair project was named Best In Fair top-10, First Grant.

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