The time has finally come to announce this year’s champions of the Dana Foundation’s annual “Design a Brain Experiment” competition, where we asked high school students across the country to try their hand at creating an original science experiment to test theories about the brain. Every year, the competition judges face the challenge of selecting two winners from a tall stack of impressive submissions. However, this year made history with a first-ever tie for our second-place winners!
The first place prize of $500 goes to Medha Palnati from Westford Academy in Massachusetts for her impressive submission, “The Use of CRISPR Technology to Test Gene Therapy as a Treatment to Early-Onset Familial Alzheimer’s Disease in Zebrafish.” Palnati’s proposal explores the potential of using an exciting new experimental form of gene therapy to treat early-onset Familial Alzheimer’s disease (FAD). FAD is usually caused by an inherited gene mutation and occurs in about five percent of all people with Alzheimer’s disease. Palnati’s research proposal uses zebrafish as a model to test this potential therapy.
Palnati decided on this topic after reading an article on the possibilities of gene therapy for her AP biology class. In addition, the article stated that research is continuing to grow as technology advances. “This statement immediately made me think of CRISPR technology, which I had read about early in 2015,” she said, “CRISPR blew my mind.”
Palnati initially became interested in exploring neuroscience after learning that a close friend was dealing with mental illness. “She struggled with recovery, and her journey took a toll on my outlook on life. Oftentimes I felt helpless, because she was suffering so much, and there was little I could do to help her.”
Palnati began studying science toward the end of her freshman year in high school, specifically in hopes of combating the stigmas surrounding mental illness. “The experiences I have encountered with neurological disorders and mental illness in my community have inspired me to work harder to combat neurological diseases effectively.”
Karen Phuong and Benjamin Myers not only tied for the silver medal, they also are both students at Bard High School Early College II, in Queens, New York. For her proposal, titled “Identifying Sequences in the Zika Virus that Cause Microcephaly,” Phuong designed an experiment using an in vitro process to mutate a genetic sequence found on a strain of the Zika virus (ZIKV SZ01). The goal of Phuong’s research proposal is to uncover more information about microcephaly—a pathology caused by Zika that infects fetuses—and create therapeutic drugs to prevent it.
When asked about how she decided on this topic, Phuong replied, “No child should ever be deprived of a normal, healthy life as a result of a birth defect. [Watching the news one afternoon], I was deeply alarmed by how quickly the disease had been spreading throughout the world as well as the lack of effective treatment plans.”
Next to Phuong, Myers submitted a proposal titled, “Potential Treatments Against Cortical Spreading Depression to Prevent the Secondary Effects of Post-Traumatic Brain Injury,” that aims to find a means to decrease the effects of Cortical Spreading Depression (CSD).
CSD is a secondary result of traumatic brain injury and causes a sudden depolarization of all neuronal cells in the area impacted by the injury. This essentially creates a state of paralysis, preventing the cells from functioning properly, and oftentimes causes lasting damage to neurons. Myers designed a method to test the most effective way to target CSD and reestablish homeostasis before the condition causes irreversible damage to the brain.
“I’ve always been interested in understanding how the brain works,” Myers said. “Neuroscience is an incredible glimpse into the frontiers of our understanding of perception and analysis, building our understanding of how we are biologically wired to react to situations, and thus furthering our investigation into the bounds between what is within our psychological control and what is far beyond it.”
Each second place winner will be awarded a $250 cash prize that will go towards funding neuro-related costs within their school’s science department and encouraging their peers to explore disciplinary science.
All three students plan to continue their pursuits in science after graduating high school. In addition to neuroscience, Myers plans on studying international politics in hopes of investigating how modern scientific perceptions are evolving within group politics. Phuong envisions herself pursuing a major in either pathology or neuroscience, but also has a passion for literature. Palnati plans to study neuroscience and biochemistry as a pre-med student. “My hope is to eventually contribute to the field of medicine by providing nonprofit care for mental illnesses and psychological disorders in places where access to treatment is not so easy to come by,” she said.
– Seimi Rurup