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Phoenix Bound: Meet the Six AISD Students Headed to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair this May

More than 360 million miles away, Anderson High School students Alex Crisara and Alex “Jahan” Rabii are orbiting Jupiter, sort of. The students themselves are grounded here on planet Earth, but their namesake asteroids are off dancing in the cosmos. The asteroids were named in the boys’ honor after they placed at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) two years ago—an achievement they’re hoping to revisit this May.

ISEF is the largest pre-college science and engineering competition in the world. Tens of thousands of young scientists and engineers from across the country compete in regional and state fairs just for the chance to have their independent research projects qualify for the prestigious international science showcase that, along with honor, bestows nearly $4 million in scholarships and grant funds to the fair’s most notable and promising entries.

On May 12, six students from the Austin Independent School District—Advaith Anand, Vanna Hovanky, Jessica Wang, Lily Xu and the aforementioned Crisara and Rabii—will travel to ISEF in Phoenix, Ariz. to compete against more than 1,500 exceptional student researchers from across the globe. Each unique project helps to define the remarkable differences among these students’ abilities, but their ambition, dedication and scientific prowess binds them together.

The Engineer

Advaith Anand, a junior at the Liberal Arts and Science Academy, took on a lofty challenge for his project Natural Gas Separation Using Thermally Rearranged Polymers-Characterizing Morphological Changes of HAB-6FDA Polyimide Structures. In other words, he researched a way polymers could make natural gas separation and production more efficient.

“I’ve always been interested in energy, and I’d read a lot about how natural gas is a resource we have available today,” Anand said. “I also knew there was a lot going on with hydrogen fuel cells, solar power and things like that, but natural gas is something we have access to now… It is 26 percent of what the US uses for energy, but the problem with it is that since separation of it is so bad, we can’t really take advantage of all the resources we have. I thought there must be a better way to do this.”

So Anand worked with a mentor, a graduate student at the University of Texas, to search for ways to streamline natural gas separation. He pored over literature about the pretreatment of natural gas before its delivery to commercial pipelines, and his studies indicated the separation process, known as amine absorption, is highly corrosive, costly and energy intensive. The solution to this dilemma, he found, is in Thermally Rearranged (TR) polymers. In his project, Anand identified the TR polymer known as HAB-6FDA-TI as having the preferred properties—ideal free volume and minimum shrinkage—to increase efficiency in natural gas production. In theory, his analysis could save millions of dollars and limit negative implications to the environment.

Taking on a project of this magnitude could cause other students’ heads to spin, but for Anand, who has aspirations of going into the engineering field, it’s more of a hobby than a chore.

“I treat the process as more of a learning opportunity than a competition,” he said. “The time I’ve spent on my project has been worthwhile and thought-provoking.”

Anand developed the project over a year-long period: in spring he immersed himself in scientific studies, in summer he interned in a lab at the J.J. Pickle Research Center, in fall he drafted his research paper, and in winter he produced his science board. Despite the project being more than a year in the making, Anand isn’t driven by the need to compete; rather, he says he’s encouraged by the opportunity to see what his fellow junior scientists are capable of.

“I think the coolest part will be to see what other kids may age are doing,” he said. “Especially since a lot of the stuff is so groundbreaking.”

The Doctor

On the South side of town, Bowie junior Vanna Hovanky is up to her eyeballs in bacteria—bacteria she is using in her project Bacterial 6-galactosidase Enzyme-Prodrug Therapy: A new Approach Against Colon Cancer.

Yes, 17-year-old Hovanky is curing cancer.

“I realized there are good bacteria in our bodies that actually help us, and I thought the E. coli in our intestines could be used for colon cancer,” she mentioned casually. “I inserted a special gene which expresses a protein that works with this non-toxic substance that can create a drug to go in and kill the cancer inside a colon, and either destroy it completely or reduce the size to a small polyp that can be removed during a colonoscopy, which is cheaper and lower risk compared to a surgery.”

Hovanky came up with the concept after learning of anaerobic bacteria’s use in gene therapy to treat breast cancer. She thought there might be other scenarios to use bacteria or viruses in gene therapy as well.

But obtaining access to the bacteria and viruses required to test her hypothesis was easier said than done.  She requested permission to use nearby laboratories, but, because of her young age and safety concerns, was repeatedly turned down by many virus researchers. That’s when she turned to E. coli strains, which Hovanky said are cheaper to grow and more easily accessible.

Eventually, she found a lab and spent a couple of days a week after school conducting her research. She worked independently on her project, without the guidance of a mentor or the moral support of a partner.

“With one person it is a little more challenging,” Hovanky admitted. “Sometimes in the lab you have to stay a little bit longer because you don’t have enough hands to do something. And with two people, you have strengths and weaknesses to play off of during judging. ”

Going it alone was a challenge for Hovanky, but she was armed with knowledge acquired through last year’s project, where she studied with researchers to find chemical inhibitors to block carbonic anhydrase 9, a harmful cancer protein. That experience, combined with months of studying and a solid grasp on scientific fundamentals, gave Hovanky the confidence to tackle the project.

“All of my teachers—my chemistry teacher, my biology teacher—really encouraged me and gave me the foundation I needed,” she said.

Hovanky knows it could be a long time before her research is put into practice, but she seems determined to see it through.

“I definitely see bacteria gene therapy going a long way,” she said. “They are pretty close to having FDA approval on anaerobic bacteria for breast cancer. The E. coli therapy could definitely be beneficial with more research…there are a lot of things that need to be perfected and worked out before bringing it to patients.”

If Hovanky has it her way, in a few years she could be on the forefront of both researching and implementing her own brand of gene therapy.  Her goal is to earn a Ph.D and to attend medical school so she can both develop a cure for cancer and deliver the care to her patients.

The Mathematicians

LASA junior Jessica Wang said you can spot her project with partners Lily and Susan Xu (not related) from a mile away.

“My friend said he was walking through [the projects] and could tell which one was ours right away,” she laughed. “It’s the only math-based project in the whole science fair.”

That’s because Wang, Lily, a LASA sophomore, and their Houston-based partner Susan, developed their project at math camp last summer. On the Connectivity of Sequential Formal Languages with Applications to Genomic Sequences, while math-based, earned them the coveted Best of Fair award at the Austin Energy Regional Science Fair in the Cellular and Molecular Biology category—uncharted territory for most math enthusiasts.

The students combined their loves of mathematics and biology to develop an algorithm to identify certain mutations in DNA. Using this algorithm, the students could determine whether a patient has a high chance of developing cystic fibrosis. They also applied their methodology to the NS1 protein sequence found in influenza A from the past decade to predict future mutations of the strain.

A professor at their math camp introduced the trio to the formal languages concept, and the girls ran away with it, updating their professor as they evolved their ideas throughout the school year.

“We were interested in this project because there were so many possible applications and field work that could be applicable,” Wang said. “It was amazing to be able to create new ideas and concepts, especially for just being in high school.”

While the students had a mentor to guide them through the project, the endeavor was more difficult from what they initially brainstormed at summer camp. Once they returned to classes in the fall, they had less time to commit to research, and with one partner out of town, collaboration wasn’t always easy.

“It was hard to communicate,” Wang said. “We had late-night Skype chat sessions to try and get everything done.”

In addition to maintaining a productive, long-distance working partnership, writing the code proved to be more taxing than initially expected, according to Xu. But anxiety subsided when they saw the far-reaching applications of their algorithm.

“The most surprising aspect of our research was, in my opinion, the wide range of applicability that we discovered after defining our methodology,” said Xu. “There are many biochemical, topological and epidemiological applications that could stem from the concepts we worked on in our research.”

While the project may be viewed as more math-oriented than science-based, it doesn’t bother Wang and Xu.

“When you do research in an area that you are genuinely interested in,” Xu said, “the research process itself will be both enjoyable and fascinating.”

The Astronauts

Over the years, the Crisara family basement has slowly been transformed from a game room to a makeshift laboratory, composed of everything from flasks of bubbling green liquid to glass test tubes, all in the name of an algae life support system for use on the international space station.

Crisara, a senior, and Rabii, a junior, slowly chipped away at their project over the years, searching for a way to keep their dreams of long duration space flight alive.  For their project, the Anderson students designed a two-part system that uses algae not only to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, converting it to breathable oxygen gas but also to purify water, effectively reducing water consumption on space stations by 74 percent and eliminating more than $50 million from the annual operating costs.

With budget cuts and things like that, the idea of humans going to Mars is very limited,” Crisara said. “The cool thing about this technology is it enables that idea to still be relevant.”

While their friends were attending sporting events or playing video games, Crisara and Rabii were spending their formative years designing, hypothesizing and testing this system they say is a game-changer in the world of aerospace. The confident duo used the concept of photosynthesis to create a complex, panel-based photobioreactor with one strain of algae that closes the life support loop, a step further from where their research was when they first presented, and won, at ISEF two years ago as a sophomore and a freshman.

“Judges have been surprised by how simple our concept to solve this problem was,” Crisara said. “It is really cool when people see how dynamic the concept is.”

Even though the idea is “simple” the production wasn’t effortless for the ISEF veterans, especially since their laundry list of necessary materials included blowtorches, hazardous chemicals, algae from Switzerland and “massive amounts of plastic.” They endured an elaborate scavenger hunt for supplies to build a system they weren’t entirely sure would be effective.

“We had a few nights where it was 2 or 3 in the morning on day 20 of working on the project where we sat on the sofa and wondered if we were in over our heads,” Rabii said. “There was a lot of questioning whether we were putting a lot of time into something that would even work.”

But it did work, as they saw when they got their first set of data back after testing the system.

“It felt great when that happened,” Crisara remembered. “But we knew we had to keep crunching through this because even though this piece worked, the next piece might not work.  There was a series of six to seven weeks where we were putting in 40 hours a week testing the project on top of our regular school stuff.”

Crisara and Rabii said balancing their time was the most difficult aspect to master over the course of the research.

“It cuts into a lot of stuff,” Rabii said. “We spent two-and-a-half years planning this, from research to testing to assembly, and there came a point that felt like we were saying ‘goodbye homework, goodbye sleep, goodbye friends, hello science project.’”

But as the project came to a close, both boys said the work, the money and the time investment paid off 10-fold, a sentiment their fellow scientists and engineers agree with. Whether or not these promising researchers come home with a trophy or asteroid in their name, each say the most valued prize is the knowledge and experience they acquired through the process.