Students reach semi-finals in Siemen’s national science competition

Written by: Eileen Qian, Rani Shiao & Katherine Zhu

Anne Zeng:

On Oct. 19, senior Anne Zeng became a regional semi-finalist in the Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology.

The Siemens Foundation rewards high-achieving high school students who pursue math and science by giving those who proceed to the finalist stage of its competition $10,000 to $100,000 scholarships, as well as national recognition. Zeng, who interns at the Department of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Stanford University, was encouraged by others in her laboratory to submit her project on Alzheimer’s disease to the competition. She was shocked by the results. “I didn’t know I was a semi-finalist until other people started congratulating me during school,” Zeng said. “I was initially confused and then surprised because I didn’t think I would make it so far.”

Since the summer of 2011, Zeng worked closely with her mother Tao Yang, who is a research scientist of Neurology at Stanford, to determine how chemical compounds can mitigate the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. For seven weeks she worked five days a week and seven hours a day. Through the implementation of her project, Zeng found that two chemical compounds, C2 and C75, could prevent events that correlate to the development and severity of Alzheimer’s such as Tau missorting and Tau phosphorylation. During these events, the protein Tau, which is usually found in a neuron’s axon, moves to another location and causes the neurons to lose their function.

During the first summer, she learned the techniques and procedures necessary to perform experiments and analyze reliable data. This summer, Zeng continued her research by examining data from the previous year and performing additional trials to further support and confirm her earlier findings.

Zeng became interested in Alzheimer’s disease through her interactions with Yang. “My mom would come home and talk about the latest developments in neurodegenerative diseases and things they did in the lab,” Zeng said. Yang encouraged Zeng to pursue her interest by submitting a proposal for the project to Dr. Frank Longo, Chair of the Department of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Stanford, who eventually approved her plans.

Although the project took a significant amount of time and required an intensive level of training, Zeng enjoyed the experience. “It’s rewarding to know people, other than those in my lab and me, appreciated the work I did,” Zeng said.

Yang found Zeng to be a pleasure to work with due to her efficiency and ability to focus. “I have worked with a few students­: high school students, undergraduate students, and graduate students in the past,” Yang said. “But working with Anne was easier than with most others not because I’m her mom, as sometimes this can make things more complicated and difficult, but rather because Anne really understood the project and was well prepared in both skills and mentality.” She believes that Zeng has acquired a much deeper understanding of neurology. “She certainly became more interested in science, neuroscience in particular,” she said. “She can now converse comfortably with people in the lab on subjects of neuroscience and Alzheimer’s disease.”

Due to the intellectual growth Zeng felt as a result of this experience, she has considered pursuing the subject as a career. “I’m not exactly sure what I want to do in the future, but [neurology] is a very interesting field,” Zeng said. “It could be something I go into in the future.”

 Catherine Nitta and Jenny Yoon:

Juniors Catherine Nitta and Jenny Yoon were awarded the Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology semi-finalist prize on Oct. 19.

Their project was a computer model for bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder is a condition that causes a person to exhibit abnormal manic and depressed states—the manic state is characterized by an overexpression of the neurotransmitter dopamine, and the depressed side is characterized by an underexpression of dopamine. The computer  model is theoretically capable of encouraging those with bipolar disorder to exhibit the manic side more than the depression side, through positive reinforcement of the manic side and negative reinforcement of the depression side. According to Yoon, the computer model simulates the levels of dopamine in the human brain to find a connection between the dopamine’s effect on a person with bipolarity.

Nitta investigated bipolar disorder because of her passion for the brain. “I have always been interested in the brain,” Nitta said. The computer model is based on a similar project about epilepsy she did over the summer by herself.

Nitta and Yoon occasionally consulted Dr. C. Anthony Hunt of University of California San Francisco (UCSF) over email for advice. “I just contacted professors at UCSF and Stanford,” Nitta said. “The Stanford professors didn’t respond but some UCSF professors were helpful.” The computer model they used was made on Net Logo, a modeling program that can be used for multiple purposes. “[Dr. Hunt] taught us how to use it for biological purposes,” Nitta said.

Nitta taught Yoon how to use the NetLogo software. “The work was split pretty evenly,” Nitta said. “I worked on the computer model more. When we wrote the report, Jenny wrote more.”

The two were able to conduct much of their research on their own with little outside assistance. “We didn’t receive any direct help on our project from universities or professors, but Mrs. Moser helped with paperwork and technicalities as our mentor,” Yoon said. “She was a great help, and really cleared up some things for us.”

All in all, the project was a challenging but enjoyable experience. “My favorite part was gathering the background information and studying the nature of bipolarity and neurotransmitters,” Yoon said. “On the other hand, my least favorite part was probably completing and gathering all the paperwork to enter the competition.”

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