This last spring, Vista Ridge’s rising seniors Rajvi Babaria, Halley Compuesto, and Mehak Gaba, competed in their first International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), a competition between students from the U.S. and 75 other countries. Competitors present projects to science and engineering professionals, with the opportunity to win scholarships and cash prizes.
By Becky Jones
All Vista Ridge High School freshmen participate in the school’s annual VRHS Science Fair as a requirement for the biology curriculum. Students beyond freshmen who wish to participate are able to do so voluntarily. Rhonda Christman, Vista Ridge teacher of Anatomy and Physiology, Medical Microbiology and AP Research, is one of the co-sponsors for the VRHS Science Fair, and mentored Rajvi, Halley, and Mehak, as members of the Vista Ridge Science Fair Club.
Their project first formed when Rajvi and Halley noticed commonalities between symptoms of family members who suffer from schizophrenia and Parkinson’s Disease. The three friends began to pursue the idea of a potential treatment plan for patients that involved off-brand drug usage, essentially drug supplements found over the counter. The project was entirely student-led; Mrs. Christman mentored them for supervision while using the lab in the classroom.
“Key characteristics of both diseases studied are patients’ inability to move efficiently, caused by a lack of dopamine,” described Rajvi. “Without dopamine, a neurotransmitter, the brain cannot efficiently communicate movement within the body.” The team began to test supplements generally used by schizophrenic patients to stabilize and regulate mood, in order to see if they were effective in patients with Parkinson’s, using C. elegans, which are worms on a petri plate. The simple creature is used in science as a “model” organism, which provides a foundation into how all organisms are formed. The C. elegans were mutated with a PINK-1 gene to have Parkinson’s disease.
The team began researching and testing in the fall of 2021 and continued throughout the school year. They eventually found that all three supplements used in testing, Sarcosine, Tyrosine and gut probiotics, had an impact on improving the mobility of the C. elegans. Sarcosine, an amino acid, had the greatest impact, improving mobility and angle of the worms’ heads by 73%. They concluded their research with a hypothesis: Inducing an initial concentration of 1 mL of sarcosine, a supplement for schizophrenia, in C. elegans with PINK-1 mutated gene can elevate the dopaminergic activity levels in the organism, thus increasing the firing rate of synapses.
After presenting their project in the Vista Ridge Science Fair, the team moved on to a regional competition, where they placed third. From there they moved to state, where they won first place and Best of Fair, earning them a spot to compete at ISEF in the category of biochemistry. The team headed to Atlanta with their project titled BCHMO22T: An Integrative Approach of Utilizing Antipsychotic Supplements Designed for Schizophrenic and Endogenous Firing Rate Differential Equation Models to Induce Neuronal Synaptic Activity in PINK-1 gene mutated C. elegans with Parkinson’s Disease.
The trip was a weeklong, chaperoned by Mrs. Christman. The event included opportunities for the students to meet and interact with students from around the world, where they exchanged dialogue about their projects. Halley describes the experience as “very surreal.” While they are “used to going to a school of 2,000 students,” they now found themselves in an environment of “1,800 kids equally competitive and prepared.” Halley went on to acknowledge it was “nerve-wracking.” However, she felt it was also a great opportunity to “meet people with similar interests and motivations,” and "was fun to show off and talk with people who understand and are interested in our project.”
During the competition, all groups met with three to seven judges, where they were passed through several rounds and scored on presentation and findings. Special Award judges selected groups to receive scholarships. Judges within each category selected recipients of the Grand Award. The VRHS team placed third for the Grand Award in biochemistry, winning them a cash prize. “The feeling of going on stage, that everything you worked for paid off, was amazing,” described Mehak. “It felt like I was walking on clouds.” Winning made them realize how much potential they have with their project. They plan to continue research throughout the summer to see what they can find, then enter VRHS Science Fair, and hopefully compete in ISEF again.
Mehak mentioned they were “the most recent ISEF team to win from VRHS in a while. I’m hopeful that our win will bring more exposure to VRHS Science Fair Club, which I think is often underestimated; I’m excited to see more students that are encouraged to join. One thing about science fair is that it is not as easy as it seems. Even getting to the state level is immensely hard so if you want to compete, it takes a lot of perseverance and determination. Everything will pay off, it’s just not as easy as it seems.”
“We didn’t think we would be going to ISEF, especially when we got third at the regional level,” stated Rajvi, and admitted she felt a bit intimidated when seeing projects at the state competition that had aesthetically impressive presentations. “We got a lot of confidence from the fact that our project was so simple and yet groundbreaking, in a way. I guess it makes a huge impact in the simplicity of it.”
“As scary as it is to go before professionals,” Halley explained, “who you feel know more than you, and who you feel you need to prove your research to, I think it’s important to remember to just be confident in yourself. There was a lot of stress, especially during our state competition, and we were letting the weight of it get to us. You just have to know that you’re as capable as anyone else, and that your work is going to pay off. We really learned that you can do so much more when you collaborate with other people, because I don’t think we could have come up with this whole thing on our own. There’s just so much that went into our project; having more than one person to work with and bounce ideas off each other was a huge help. That’s a big part of our success.”
To learn more about their project, check out the ISEF website: https://projectboard.world/isef/finalist-booth/bchm022t---a-integrative-treatment-for-parkinsons-disease
Check out VRHS Science Fair on Instagram (https://instagram.com/vrhssciencefair?igshid=YzAyZWRlMzg=)