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Science success in the genes

Science success in the genes
Mario Rafael Morales of College Point has been honored as one of 300 nationwide semifinalists in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search 2011. Photo courtesy Mario Rafael Morales
By Connor Adams Sheets

A College Point high school student has been recognized in the nation’s most prestigious science competition for his intellectual prowess and research skills.

Mario Rafael Morales, a 17-year-old math whiz at the Bronx High School of Science, was named Jan. 12 as a semifinalist in the Intel Science Talent Search 2011 for his computer-based genetic research.

Selected as one of 300 nationwide semifinalists out of 1,744 entrants representing 499 high schools, the senior will receive a $1,000 award as will his school for doing so well in the competition.

Morales’ research, dubbed “Stochastic Modeling for Periodic Protein Production Rate and Implications for Gene Networks and Genetic Disorder Treatment,” was one of eight from the Bronx High School of Science to earn its young researchers semifinalist honors in this year’s competition, according to Dr. Jean Donahue, the school’s assistant principal of science.

“It was great. I was very shocked. I wasn’t really expecting to win,” Morales said. “When I heard the news, I was really excited and the assistant principal took me to a class where my friends were really happy for me and cheered for me.”

The work is a computer modeling project examining the production of proteins, which has implications for the treatment of genetic disorders.

“With a computer program I was able to use algorithms that use random numbers to get a better approximation of what the future state of a cell would look like,” Morales said. “There’s already been some research done in this field, but they always assume there’s a constant rate of production for molecules. In my research I discarded that assumption because it’s not really accurate when one looks at the experimental data, and I used a changing rate of production.”

He completed the research project in conjunction with Dr. Vladimir Shapovalov, a mathematics teacher at Bronx High School of Science, and under the mentorship of Dr. Hyun Youk at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.

“We’re absolutely thrilled. We like to have any student that’s interested in what real research is like to try it,” Donahue said. “The experience that he gets from this lets him know whether science, whether research and math are areas that he really wants to pursue. But the students also learn so much about themselves, about time management, they’re pushed as far as they can go as far as their writing and their creativity.”

On Jan. 26, the contest’s 40 finalists will be named and published in Science News magazine. The finalists will travel to Washington, D.C., to attend the Intel Science Talent Institute and participate in a final judging process, after which they will learn their share of $630,000 in awards. The top student will received $100,000.

Reach reporter Connor Adams Sheets by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718-260-4538.

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