Episcopal science students compete for $20,000 grant

 Episcopal science students compete for $20,000 grant

 

Thanks to a sizeable grant from Judy Nicholson Kidney Cancer Foundation, students in Marion Zeiner’s Honors Science Seminar at Episcopal School of Jacksonville will have the opportunity to experience first-hand what it is like to be in the competitive world of medical research.

Zeiner’s seminar allows high school students at all four grade levels to turn original scientific research into prize-winning projects at state and national science fairs.

In fact, last year three of Zeiner’s students – Carly Crump, Alice Choi and Andre Royce – were finalists at the Intel International Science Fair in Pittsburgh, where Crump won several major prizes as well as the prestigious Dudley R. Herschblach Stockholm Seminar Award for her research on ways to eradicate the dengue virus through mosquito studies.

EpiscopalScience_01Because of her achievement, Crump, a Riverside resident, had an asteroid named for her by associates at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and will travel to Stockholm, Sweden, to attend the week-long Nobel Prize ceremonies, all expenses paid.

Granted Crump, who graduated last spring and is a freshman at the University of Florida, set a high bar. But this year, because of a $20,000 grant from the Judy Nicholson Foundation, Zeiner will be able to give her students an even better taste of the competitive world of academic research.

The Jacksonville-based foundation granted Episcopal’s Science Department the money so students can try to find an early way to detect kidney cancer. Students in Zeiner’s class are still able to study a variety of subjects, but only the students who choose to study some aspect of kidney cancer detection are eligible to compete for the grant money. Zeiner will award the entire $20,000 to the student or team of students whose proposal is selected by a panel of doctors from Jacksonville’s Mayo Clinic and the Judy Nicholson Foundation. She announced the winner September 28.

“It’s like real life,” said Zeiner, noting that the money will be available for supplies, travel and equipment to support the research.

Of the 12 students studying under Zeiner this year, five have committed to the challenge: senior Andre Royce; junior Katie Leeper, sophomore Courtney Crawford, senior Zachary Zeller, and senior Alice Choi. Crawford and Zeller will work as a team.

Choi, who took the class last year, is not officially enrolled in the class this year but will compete for the scholarship and do research as an extra-curricular activity, Zeiner said. Last year, Choi won her category at the Florida State Science Fair and was a finalist at the Intel International Science Fair with a project on the effects of methylparaben, a food preservative, on ghost shrimp.

In the class working on other research subjects this year are junior Carl Yang of Ortega, sophomore Tara Martin, junior Kiera Royce, junior Elizabeth Bauer, junior Isaiah Nields of San Jose and sophomore Zach Adam.

Wife’s death leads to foundation, grant

Judy Nicholson Foundation Chairman Emeritus Nick Nicholson started the nonprofit after his wife, Judy, died of kidney cancer. Mrs. Nicholson fainted one day out of the blue. After consulting with her doctor, she discovered she had Stage 3 kidney cancer. Prior to fainting, she had experienced no symptoms of the disease, and she died a few months after her diagnosis. Nicholson believes that had a screening test been available to detect kidney cancer, his wife might still be alive.

“We want to inspire young minds at Episcopal School of Jacksonville under Mrs. Zeiner’s guidance to begin research that may lead to the early detection of renal cell carcinoma (kidney cancer),” said Nicholson. “We were inspired by the incredible work of a high school senior from Maryland, Jack Andraka, who made inroads into the early detection of pancreatic cancer.”

Conducting research like this is similar to what students encounter in graduate school, and Zeiner doesn’t believe in coddling her students. The class is structured so they are forced to work hard and to figure things out independently. “To be in this class they need to be willing to be the directors of their own learning. My students are very self-driven,” she said.

Before writing a project proposal, her class heads to the library to search Episcopal’s vast Internet data base of scientific articles from publications such as The Journal of Environmental Health and the Russian Journal of Molecular Biology. Reading obscure scientific studies might seem daunting to many, but Kiera Royce said the class has taught her a lot about how to approach them.

“Some articles are way over my head,” she said. “I’m learning how to get a general idea about them. The titles can be scary with long names, but you have to pull through and learn how to piece things together. Eventually you realize the idea is very simple. You can find stuff on your project through simplifying everything.”

Her brother, Andre, said he expects to focus on early cancer detection, through bio-markers and proteins in blood and urine samples. “I’m not sure whether I want to redo some other proposal or take the information and go a step further and see if there is another protein that hasn’t been analyzed yet,” he said.

To do the research most students work with doctors or academic researchers in the Jacksonville area although occasionally students travel out of state, Zeiner said. Crump worked with Dr. Rhoel Dinglasan, a prominent researcher in the field of mosquito-born viruses at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, and Zeiner took her class on a field trip to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to tour research labs at MIT and Harvard.

“It’s important to instill in the students an enthusiasm for scientific discovery,” Zeiner said. “It’s important to visit labs where novel research is happening. That’s what gets them thinking about this.”

Andre said hopes to work with Dr. Shriram S. Marathe, a nephrologist in St. Augustine. He also hopes to do his research at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville.

Competing against each other for the grant money is a good thing, said Zeller. “It drives us to be as competitive as possible and to have all our projects be really good,” he said, noting the class has taught him to work independently and manage his time well. “It has sparked my interest in science. It provides me a way to test the waters (in the field) and gives us first-hand experience because we are actively participating.”

Learning how to communicate well is also a facet of the class, said Andre. “Research doesn’t mean anything if you can’t clearly convey the research and draw attention to why it matters,” he said. “It’s important to be able to clearly articulate what you want to say so that everyone clearly understands.”

Even though he is competing against his schoolmates for the grant, the class still feels like one team, said Andre. “All together at Episcopal we are one research team. When we get to the Northeast Florida Science Fair, we represent Episcopal as a whole. In the end we are still here for each other,” he said.

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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