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NE Queens teen scientists make cut in Intel contest

By Sophia Chang

And Padmavati Sridhar gave up her summer fun last year, spending 40 hours a week at New York University's computer labs running algorithms on genetic sequences.But for these two 17-year-old high school seniors, their hard work has paid off as they have been selected as semi-finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search competition, the highly prestigious science and math contest, out of a field of 1,600 entrants, it was announced Jan. 12. Forty finalists will be culled Jan. 26 from the 300 semi-finalists to compete for a top prize of a $100,000 scholarship. Semi-finalists receive $1,000 each and their respective schools will get $1,000 as well.Reynolds, who was the only semi-finalist from St. Francis Prep in Fresh Meadows, chose for her project, “Sleep and the Differential Improvement on a Sequential Motor Skill Task: A Profile of Healthy Individuals vs. Schizophrenics.” Sridhar, who attends Townsend Harris High School in Flushing, had an equally long title for her winning project, “Computational Identification of 11 Candidate Small Nucleolar RNAs in the Region of Human Chromosome 15 Associated with Prader-Willi and Angelman Syndromes.”In essence, Reynolds measured the effect of sleep on people's ability to perform a procedural task, focusing on a control group of young, healthy adults, another group of middle-aged adults, and a group of people diagnosed with schizophrenia. She spent two weeks during the summer at Harvard University's Sleep Lab, working closely with leading researchers on the project she designed herself.Sridhar's project was as cutting-edge as science gets. She wrote and executed computer algorithms to detect genetic sequences in RNA strands that may affect two genetic diseases, even finding undiscovered RNA molecules during her research.When the semi-finalists announcement was posted on Intel's Web site, Reynolds said she was just getting out of school and ready to go home, but her friends persuaded her to stay at school and wait for the results. Sridhar said her father, a New York University business professor currently teaching abroad, excitedly called her when it was midnight in India with the news before she had heard herself.Both credited their high schools' strong science research programs for part of their success.”At Prep, I've had really great teachers. They know how to push you just far enough, and they all have a lot of faith in us,” Reynolds said, who often leaves her Brooklyn home before 6 a.m. to get to school an hour early to work on her project. She began the road toward the Intel competition three years ago by enrolling in her school's science research program.One of Sridhar's teachers at Townsend Harris helped her find a mentor and steered her toward computer work. Two other teachers helped her revise her competition paper nearly 50 times before submission.Sridhar's project evolved from her original idea to help model the Human Genome Project, an ambitious global effort to map the human DNA sequence in its entirety. But after talking to professors at NYU, Sridhar wanted to work with computers, still a relatively new tool in biology.”I was very interested in doing hands-on dissections, and I was researching NYU professors and came across one doing models of DNA,” she said. It turned out the professor was using computers to model genetics, an avenue Sridhar had not considered. “At first I was really unsure how computers could help, but there are so many programs that you can use now,” she said. “It's a really efficient way of looking for specific structures.” Sridhar, who lives in Fresh Meadows, said her competition paper will soon be published in a science journal as well.Both semi-finalists said they want to carry on with the work they have begun. Reynolds, who wants to attend either Brown University or Smith College, hopes to continue neuroscience studies combined with a major in English, with an eye on a career as a science writer.”Just having written a paper, I really feel prepped for college,” she said, noting that her time at Harvard gave her the confidence that she could live on her own.Padmavati wants to study bioengineering at Harvard University or MIT. “I want to continue this,” she said, adding that she loves to teach and wants to be a professor someday. “This is something I can contribute to the world.”Not busy enough with her rigorous class work and her research, Reynolds also holds two part-time jobs and works on the school newspaper and yearbook. “I just feel uneasy when I don't have something to do,” she said.Sridhar tutors children and performs classical Indian music as well. “My grandmother used to take me to school and she taught me these songs along the way,” she said. Reynolds said she never thought she would advance so far in the competition, while Sridhar said she had prepared since sixth grade for the Intel and was nervously awaiting the announcement of the finalists.”I'm going to try to forget about it and be surprised by my dad again,” she said.Reach reporter Sophia Chang by e-mail at news@timesledger.com, or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

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