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Local Students Compete in Intel International Science and Engineering Fair

student group
Anusha Puri, left, Cameron Sharma, David Kang and Perisa Ashar attended the ISEF competition in Phoenix.

Perisa Ashar is researching what role an electric current in the human body plays in neurological disorders.

Cameron Sharma has developed a mathematical model to help identify various microorganisms and determine if they can cause disease.

David Kang has developed a method to lower emissions of a greenhouse gas, which could lessen climate change.

These Richmond-area high school students were among 70 students from Virginia who attended the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). They joined more than 1,800 students from over 80 countries, regions and territories at the ISEF in Phoenix, Arizona, in May.

"Their projects were nothing short of amazing," said Vonita Giddings, a science educator at the MathScience Innovation Center (MSIC) and Metro Richmond Director for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).  Christine Belcher, the K-12 coordinator at MSIC, also accompanied the students.

“They inspire me,” Giddings said as she explained details of the STEM competition. The Metro Richmond STEM Fair, sponsored by MSIC, provides a gateway to the Broadcom MASTERS (math, applied science, technology and engineering for rising stars) Fair, a national middle school competition.  It also provides a path to the Virginia State Science and Engineering Fair and to ISEF, both of which are high school competitions.

Giddings emphasized that, for these students, participating in STEM competitions is not just a single project, but a journey. "It is life changing," Giddings said. “They have been doing their projects for quite some time. The competition is fierce. They come back and they are so excited about what they are going to do the next year.”

One student, Perisa Ashar, just completed her sophomore year at Maggie Walker Governor’s School for Government and International Studies. She received a special award at the competition in Phoenix for her work with hyperpolarization activated (Ih) currents, which are among several types of electric currents in the human body. The award means she will get to visit the National Taiwan Science Education Center as one of only two students from the United States who received this honor.

Perisa Ashar
Perisa Ashar discusses her research project with Vonita Giddings.

Perisa explained that Ih currents are important to the function of 10 human organs. She is researching at the molecular level how certain compounds, such as sedatives, can reduce the amount of Ih currents that travel to a part of the brain, which might cause neurological afflictions.

“My passion for research just can’t be stopped,” Perisa said. In addition to her research and regular school work, she plays piano competitively and is a runner.

“I looked at liver cancer,” said Anusha Puri, who will be a senior this fall at Mills Godwin High School. Using gene editing techniques, she compared genes that cause the disease with genes that don’t.

As a result, she was able to identify chemotherapy combinations that are more effective and produced fewer side effects than other therapies. Common chemotherapy side effects include fatigue, nausea and infection. Anusha became interested in doing this research after watching a documentary about sickle cell anemia.

Anusha Puri is looking for ways to improve chemotherapy with fewer side effects.

Anusha Puri
Anusha Puri’s research is aimed at making chemotherapy more effective with fewer side effects.

“I saw how, using genetic engineering, we can influence our bodies,” she said.

Anusha plans to pursue a career in biomedical engineering. She is captain of the Mills Godwin debate team and also a member of the robotics team.

Cameron Sharma, also a Mills Godwin student, just completed his freshman year. In his research, he analyzed genetic sequencing of bacteria.

Cameron developed a mathematical model to determine if a given microorganism can cause disease. One example he gave was E. coli, explaining that there are various forms of these bacteria. Some types cause disease, while others are helpful. His mathematical model can determine the difference.

Cameron Sharma
Cameron Sharma explains the mathematical model he created to identify bacteria.

“It can tell you what type of bacteria it is within 92 to 97 percent accuracy and whether it is pathogenic with a 97 percent accuracy,” he said.

Cameron, in his spare time, plays soccer for his high school and for the Richmond Strikers athletic club.

David Kang read an article about climate change, which gave him the idea for his research. He said that carbon dioxide (CO2 is the most common greenhouse gas implicated in climate change and therefore the most studied, so he decided to focus on methane (CH4, another culprit. He said 30 percent of all methane in the atmosphere comes from emissions from livestock.

David Kang
David Kang researched lowering methane emissions from cattle.

“I discovered a novel method of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions in livestock using a compound I created,” said the rising junior who attends J.R. Tucker High School. His compound is a derivative of a chemical found in all animals that tends to inhibit the bacteria that produce methane, but not in high enough concentrations to significantly lower methane levels.

David then tested the effectiveness of the compound in lowering methane production, with positive results. “In the future, I might be able to introduce the compound into livestock feed to be fed to animals around the world,” he said.

David plays violin with the Richmond Symphony Youth Orchestra and plans to start a STEM club at his school to interest more students in science and technology. He aspires to become a neurosurgeon.

“We have a lot of students who have wonderful research projects,” Giddings said. In the case of the students who went to ISEF, “They were competing against the best of the best.”